It’s summertime summertime sum sum summertime. ..
With the windows down and the stereo cranked, the breeze blowing through the car and the tunes blasting through the neighborhood, there’s nothing that compares to cruising around, “With no particular place to go,” on a summer afternoon.
The magic of any art is evocation, conjuring up a moment in time and making it manifest, the universal expression of feelings and sensations arising from a singular, gifted expression. We all have (hopefully) experienced that magic, many times. Standing transfixed in a gallery we are captivated by a painting or sculpture that, for reasons unique to the moment and the fingerprint of who we are, binds us to the artist’s ability to not only echo the complexities of our internal states but stirs in the ingredient of a new experience, creating for us something discrete and real and vital. In that moment, we are changed forever.
Literature has the same impact and, although expressed differently, our lives are never the same when an author expresses for us something we’ve felt but for which we could never find the words. More than that, in the best literature, we are introduced to a new world. By the writer’s gift we are guided to worlds that had been beyond our apprehension; providing anchorage and a plank, the author has provided us a foothold on something wondrous, a vista to the alien and the beautiful.
As I said a few weeks ago, there are authors I can quote, not from memory but from my heart. The words moved me in such a way that my internal landscape admitted them and made them, indelibly, a part of me.
Several months ago, I had my children watch “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a film I’ve watched well over a dozen times. On that occasion, I didn’t watch the movie but watched my children, vicariously living through them their awe and excitement at experiencing a new world. Kubrick’s gift is that he won’t allow us to passively observe but engages us to the extent that we are forced to participate in the story and we are invested in a future that is as frightening as it is wondrous. To this day, my children discuss the ethos and morality of HAL, the meaning of the Starchild and the mystery of the monolith.
One of these days, I’ll put on “Last Year at Marienbad” and really mess with their heads.
The magic of music is particularly manifest in its power to evoke, to conjure a moment in time and lock that thin slice of reality into memory. More than that, music can, by its sound and sense, draw from thin air threads that weave a particular tapestry, a scene, a moment in time. Many months ago I wrote about music which, for me, creates an atmosphere which can only be described as driving late at night, an atmosphere that is not really of this age, at least not anymore.
Although the Blue Highways remain, alive for those who live along them, they rarely exist on MapQuest searches (where they are now red or gray,) residing beyond that which is highlighted in purple and devoid of much meaning or any meandering urge for discovery.
In that column, I described an atmosphere that predates most of the music discussed here from week to week, an age when driving out on Blue Highways demanded AM radio (because those signals skipped off the ionosphere, going places where FM was reduced to a soft hiss), songs drifting in and out of reception and consciousness, like spectral voices. A time when AM radio was where all popular music resided and FM was for “beautiful music.” A time when, past midnight, the nightfly DJ was spinning disks alone in a studio because he knew I was out there, likewise alone, both of us casting a psychic thread that was immediate and ephemeral and then, cut loose to drift in the night while I sped on, fiddling with the dial to seek another connection.
Maybe one in a hundred who read this will understand what I’m saying. It is the cost of survival, of passing out of one generation and standing outside the next. And so, driving late at night is a metaphor, not looking back and yet, remembrance. Letting the headlights illuminate the next step but still having some thought lodged firmly where I came from, living, close enough to grasp and as distant as the stars below.
While driving late at night might not seem to be a slice of summer, it is for me exclusively a warm weather moment. The son of a military father, my childhood was largely spent moving from duty station to duty station and it was during the summer when we’d travel headlong into the night, making for our next destination as I watched distant lights roll from front to back, marking a particular moment in time that, specific to a place and time, nonetheless captured my imagination enough to create the “me” that I am today.
An attempt to enumerate all the music that evokes and celebrates summertime would be pointless as it would be verbose. For every lyric like, “And the Magic Rat drove his sleek machine/Over the Jersey state line/Barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge/Drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain/The Rat pulls into town, rolls up his pants/Together they take a stab at romance/And disappear down Flamingo Lane,” (from Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland”), there exist ten thousand other songs that weave their magic for us, capturing not just instances of our summers — our windows down and our hair untamed in the wind, the light, cooling spray of a distant lawn sprinkler, the buzz of a Junebug against a screen — but, in the words of Proust, that translucent alabaster of our memories.
Writing about summer songs would occupy my pen well into the next year and would, as we await our next thunderstorm, be nothing more than the murmuring of a madman out too long in the sun. Having said that, I must betray myself, recommending for all of you a particular piece of music that remains awesome in its power to conjure a Pagosa Springs summer.
Gustav Mahler’s “Fourth Symphony” is as magical and perfect as any piece of music ever composed, especially in its evocative power. In it, there is not a single missed note or wasted flourish. From the opening to the coda, we are transported, flown far above terra firma to observe a world that only Mahler can create for us.
More than that, Mahler’s magic is, as it is in all great art, its ability to create not just a new sensation for us but to invent an emotional state for us that is far beyond the realm of our experience.
The first movement is about complete revelation, Satori, being in the moment and completely aware. It is sad and exultant at the same time, as if chronicling the life of a past king while celebrating the birth of a new one. It is also some of the most erotic music ever composed (second only to the overture to Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”). Ravel’s “Bolero” be damned.
Mahler’s Fourth is music made to drive though the mountains only because it is an appreciation of heights, on all levels. The second movement begins with horns to remind us of those heights then softly brings us back to our perspective, observing from a distance, in awe. Moving through the trees (or, in tandem with our paramour), awe becomes our next step to Love — if even in the moment. Mahler is brilliant here, capturing what we’ve all felt, the ephemeral sensation of complete love in the moment with no regard for any other moment in our lives. Dangerous as much as it is ecstatic, Mahler realizes that simple moment in time and captures it perfectly. We’re transported, despite our best intentions and rationality.
Caught up in the moment, the third movement allows us to consider the future with the person we’re with; it is a wedding march, plain and simple. It extends our thoughts to their logical conclusion, walking down the aisle, hand in hand before a priest, hundreds of friends and relatives witnessing the event. Yet, despite the strong opening, the movement grows tentative, timorous, shaking like the leg of a reluctant bride beneath soft silk. Despite the magnificent opening and definitive closing, there is a bittersweet taint in its totality.
The fourth movement clinches it, capturing the darkness of a trap, the mountains closing down around us, swallowed by an avalanche. A tribillant flute tries to walk us out, slowly, trudging through the snow and cold, with horns calling us to safety but, really, we’re hosed. Dead. Frozen and done in this life.
Or so it seems. Towards the end, the strains that brought us here — either to make love or watch the tops of mountains — return to bring us back, not in redemption or damnation but to remind us where we started. There is a flash, a moment of light where we can be redeemed. It is just a moment and Mahler reminds us that the knock of opportunity is almost silent and fleeting.
I love that: being reminded of the mistakes that brought me to this place and my sliver of a way out. The only way out taps lightly and only once.
Philosophers have spent centuries attempting to explain how art creates that magic — the ability to transform our internal states and from them, create something new. They have never succeeded. String Field Theories are infinitely more coherent than any rambling discourse on aesthetics.
I am reminded of Borges’ “limits” as he describes his own frustration and futility in describing just what it is that art does for us and how it does it.
“You will never recapture what the Persian
Said in his language woven with birds and roses,
When, in the sunset, before the light disperses,
You wish to give words to unforgettable things.
And the steadily flowing Rhone and the lake,
All that vast yesterday over which today I bend?
They will be as lost as Carthage,
Scourged by the Romans with fire and salt.”
Preferring to be a rational man and not given to magical, mystical thought, not impressed by miracles or mysteries, I am nonetheless awe struck by how, by a brush stroke or the wave of a baton or flourish of a pen, an artist can not only evoke a moment in time but endow it with something exciting and fresh.
As summertime rolls, the windows down and the wind rushing by, Mahler blasts out to the rest of the world, reminding me of this great mystery — and eternal joy.