in Sound

Listening to Gustav Mahler

Happy Birthday, Gustav Mahler.

For 25 years, Mahler’s music has given me my very best tears.

It started on March 27, 1994. A cousin phoned me at my Uncle Tajinder’s house in Ambala and told to come that afternoon to my Uncle Johar’s house, to receive a phone call from my father in New York. International phone calls were events at that time.

It was a joyous occasion. He played music. I tried speaking, asked about my brother and my mother. He says “Just listen”

After 15 minutes or so, I was crying. Was it the music? I wrote in my journal at the time:

Spoke to Dad yesterday. Joyous. He wasted 10-15 minutes, listening to Gustav Mahler. It brought me to tears because I had just finished reading Immortality, and thought of Agnes’ death and Laura and Paul’s wretchedness and at the same time about me and my Dad and Sajan, and Agnes and her dad, and Brigitte and Paul. Wretchedness.

People were worried, seeing me crying. Everyone asked “What’s he saying? What’s he saying?”

“He isn’t saying anything. He is just playing music.”

It ended. He said “That was the Fourth Movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.”

I would cry again, tears like I had not cried since a baby, when I saw Min Tanaka’s “Poe Project” at Jacob’s Pillow in 1997. I cried for a half an hour after, in the woods. Tension. Release. As Jon Erikson described the performance:

Min Tanaka either wore a raincoat with a beat-up fedora, or else a large white diaper. The attitudes displayed by the dancers seemed to be those of the inmates of an insane asylum, and their movements tending towards obsessive-compulsive and hysterical behavior. There were cries that rent the air, coming from various inmates, male and female, with uncanny and contagious reproductions of behavior along with a strange and rhythmic music of screams… Mad pawings and screamings went on for what seemed like an unbearable length of time …. But the last scene created an incredible shift from everything that went on before. Suddenly all was calm, the lighting was soft, and we saw a tableau of several couples in various poses of sitting, lying, and standing, reaching longingly and lovingly toward each other. Music swelled: the adagio from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (the theme music from Death in Venice). Suddenly I was perplexed and a bit dismayed because it all seemed to become very saccharine and sentimental… the looks exchanged rendering the lovers utterly ridiculous and camp. Tanaka suddenly stumbled onto the stage in his diaper, moving among them… turning and walking that peculiar Butoh pigeon-toed walk toward the back of the stage, his arms outstretched. As he approached the back wall, it opened, revealing another wall. When he got to that wall, it too opened for him. As he walked through these walls, it became progressively dark around him, until a walk opened and it was completely black, but with bright spotlights backlighting him. As he walked, it appeared that smoke was rising from his body, but then I realized that the last wall had actually opened into the woods behind the theater, and the smoke was really steam. He disappeared between the lights and into the dark woods as the music faded.

from Archaeologies of Presence

I had cried earlier, but not as intensely, during the Oyster Girl scene of Tampopo. I cried again at the Angelika Cinema, watching Before Night Falls in 2000, and in other movies I don’t recall. Hollywood is well aware of the power of this music, which Willem Mengelberg described as Mahler’s declaration of love.

The Adagietto served as a love letter from the composer to Alma Schindler, probably shortly before they were married in 1902. The Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, in his personal copy of the Fifth Symphony, wrote: “This Adagietto was Gustav Mahler’s declaration of love for Alma! Instead of a letter, he sent her this in manuscript form; no other words accompanied it. She understood and wrote to him: He should come!!! (both of them told me this!).” Mengelberg’s own description of the Adagietto was “love, a love comes into his life.”

I understood my father’s phone call. I should go, and it was good that I went. Secrets would be unearthed. Wrongs might be righted. My father had called to tell me he loved me.

Six years later, he died in Ambala, while listening to Gustav Mahler. When they found his body in the morning, his EMI Classics Mahler’s Greatest Symphonies CD had been on loop since the night before. I like to imagine that he heard the Adagietto in his last moments of consciousness, reckoning with immortality.



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