Tuesday evening was magical. Standing at the counter of Oasis Falafel awaiting my dinner ($3), I was filled with excitement. Not only because I’d have the best $3 falafel in Williamsburg, but because i was going to hear the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall ($175. Thanks mom-in-law!).
It was a big night. always a big night when one of the world’s great orchestras plays Carnegie, but this night was extra special. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Even the name makes you tremble in your pants. I’d never heard it live, thru all my life of playing and attending concerts.
As I waited at Oasis, something uncanny happened, a meeting at the well which got me thinking I should keep my eyes open. I’m the kind to see winks from the Universe and whenever these things take place, life-changing shit is about to occur.
A bedraggled, unshaven, short young guy, black guitar case on back, thick black eyeglass frames, black knit hat and oversize black overcoat entered the restaurant, approaching the counter to order. I looked him over, noticed a book peeking from his coat pocket as if intentionally to grab me- Beethoven: Master Composer. I was a little taken aback, but being a student of these winks, I held my ground. I asked the kid about the book.
“Not bad,” he said, “but can’t say I’m really crazy about the author. Got a pipe up his ass.”
“That’s too bad,” I said.
“But I Heard 132 last week and it really blew me away,” referring to Beethoven’s string quartet, the ‘Holy Thanksgiving,’ which Ludwig wrote after an illness he thought’d kill him. With a deep circle under each eye, the guy looked like he could relate.
“Awesome! Who with?”
“Mmm, some Dutch group. It was at the Lincoln Center. Really cool.”
It’s encounters like this that make living in Williamsburg a godsend. Nowhere else on the planet do you have such a convergence of hipsters and high culture, and this nonchalant curiosity about the highest creative acts. It’s the speed of the link on the L-train: in under 30 mins from a hotbed of edgy pop to a bastion of polished classics. Transforming the pop culture, carrying transcendence from the symphony to the 3 minute song, thru a tube under the river. Not that we’re the first to make the connection.
A Clockwork Orange’s ‘bit of the old Ludwig van’ forever welded an antisocial punk, drunk on drugged milk and the Ninth, to the collective consciousness, underscoring Beethoven’s pure rebellion. When I got to Carnegie and heard the show, I was reminded of Burgess’ acuity. There’s nothing as riotous as the Ninth.
In its time there had never been a chorus on stage in a symphony and the composer shocked his audience from the get-go. But the music itself is the greatest mindfuck. The first movement begins with a shimmering of strings atop a sustained bed of horns. And, as the first violins plant their jerky motivic germ into the third bar, the listener’s sense of time is thrown. The ensuing shifts of the motive in time rebel even more fiercely against a fixed pulse. Chaos.
As if we’ve been introduced to the world before form, a world before the separation of light and dark. As if Beethoven in his continued nose thumbing at real life authority and the stricture of musical canon cried, “to hell with all this form crap! Let’s give you all a taste of the formless and see how you dig it.”
I cant think of a precedent in music when formlessness had won out so fully over form, except when some cavemen were blowing flutes around a fire. In Beethoven’s time and for a century to follow, audience and critical reception of the piece was violently negative.
It doesn’t get any easier to follow as the Ninth goes along. In the third movement Adagio-Andante, I noticed my mind straying farther and farther away from Carnegie Hall. Was it the abstraction of the music, the energies diverted from listening toward digestion of falafel, or was it really that my recent attention to crafting a punchy 3 minute song had soured my attention for the unabridged and symphonic, as all warn our fast-food culture does? Maybe all of the above.
In any case, all distraction ended with the first notes of the final movement. How can you hear the forte exclamations of the cellos and basses (low string power!) and not climb to the edge of your seat? The energy becoming so electric and, yes as modern listeners we know that the baritone is about to sing his emphatic call to joy and the other soloists and choir will concur with the Ode and the whole damn thing with orchestra will turn into a bacchanalian celebration of life in sound. I couldn’t believe the insanity of the smile plastered to my face. I was shocked.
In the last bars of music I could actually hear Ludwig himself climbing out from the sound and joyously shouting his affirmation of humanity, life and art. His deafness, decrepitude, his social debasement, none could diminish his unbridled lust for life. Maybe he was urging me to persist in my own intrepid line of expression and to speak, as the Vienna Phil’s manifesto proclaims, from ‘one heart to another.‘ But as the triumph came towards its close, there was no denying the presence of a beating heart within the sound. As the orchestra blasted through the final measures, the musicians dissolved into thin air and a short, bedraggled man was left on stage shouting directly to me. ‘Speak your peace! Live!’ echoed through the hall. The kid at oasis had opened my ears.
Who else could hear I do not know.