My friend died 100 years ago, on May 18, 1911, but we’re still friends. I don’t mean that we’re close personal friends like Lucy & Ethel, Joey & Chandler, or the Golden Girls. But I do mean that we’re at least Facebook-caliber friends, which is the standard by which friendships are now judged. He’s been there for me through good times and bad, offering support when I needed it, overwhelming me with a flood of emotion when I didn’t always expect it, and generally making life more worth living. I’ve met some great people because of him, and I’ve had some great experiences because of his work. At this point I feel like I’m writing something for a leaflet that Christians include in bills to their eye doctor because they’re supposed to spread God’s word, so I’ll cut that off right now and say that I’m talking about Gustav Mahler.
I remember my introduction to the world of Mahler like it was yesterday. I went to a performing arts magnet school in Vegas, and we had some really fine musicians pass through there over the years. The best of these was the guy I sat next to for my first two years, Chris Castellanos, currently a member of Boston Brass and easily the best horn player I’ve ever been in reasonable proximity of (it was a pretty easy way to stay humble about one’s own playing when sitting on the bell side of a player of that caliber). I overheard snippets of a conversation he was having about Mahler with a fellow student, and I took a mental note. At the time, I didn’t listen to classical music much; my parents had gotten me a CD of John Williams’ best stuff, I had heard a little Canadian Brass, and my horn teacher, George Bosnos, had given me a 2-disc set of Strauss Tone Poems conducted by Solti as a birthday gift (I give George a lot of credit for getting me started on the path of musical righteousness…he taught me a lot about MUSIC and not just about the horn). Mostly, I was transitioning into classical stuff from the music in my sweet cassette-tape collection, like Bobby Brown, C&C Music Factory, Hi-Five, Another Bad Creation, and especially MC (and later on not-so-much-MC) Hammer. I was born a poor black child, etc…
The symphony Chris mentioned, at least according to my mental note, was the Fifth, and I remember him crushing the lick from the stormy middle section of the first movement (the one where the horns go up the scale in triplets and Hollywood slur up to a high C); it was bad ass. I went to the public library (remember those?) and checked out a recording with Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, the one on Deutsche Grammophon with Abbado marking up a giant score that looks like a prop from The Princess Bride. I took it home and listened to it a few times. I don’t remember my exact reaction, but I obviously liked it well enough, because when I returned to the public library, I checked out the same forces performing Mahler’s Symphony no. 1, this one featuring Abbado’s countenance of smug satisfaction on the cover. This time, I knew I was hooked. I made a copy of the disc onto a cassette (brief note to Interpol and the FBI: the cassette has since been destroyed) and listened to it all the time. I remember coming home from a community band rehearsal with my sister (who was a very good oboist) and listening to it in the car, both of us straining to hear the end of the third movement, me failing to warn her that the start of the fourth movement would scare the living shit out of us at that volume. I was mesmerized, and I wanted more.
Like all good friends, Mahler introduced me to more friends. I went to the Wow! Store (½ Good Guys, ½ Tower Records) on Sahara and Decatur in pursuit of my own CD copy of Mahler 1 (remember when you had to go to a store to buy new music?). I worked at a grocery store that paid $4.25 an hour at the time, working full-time my senior year, from 3 pm – midnight, bringing in the Benjamins to the tune of $130 a week (I guess technically that’s only one Benjamin, along with one Jackson and one Hamilton), so money was tight. I couldn’t afford to drop $15 on Solti or Bernstein, so I did what any cheap bastard would have done: I went to the bargain bin and found one that cost $3. It was on some label called “Curb Classic Collection” and featured an orchestra I had never heard of called the Staatskapelle Dresden (I told you I was new to classical music…they were only one of the oldest and most respected orchestras in the entire world) led by a conductor I had never heard of named Otmar Suitner (on this one, I wasn’t alone). I didn’t know anything about artistic quality or the technical aspects of a recording, but for $3 it could have sounded like it was recorded in my bathroom and I wouldn’t have cared. Of course, it sounded great. It remains one of my favorite Mahler recordings, and as anyone who’s read anything here before, Otmar Suitner is my favorite conductor and I have over 80 of his recordings (and still want more…birthday hint, family!).
Speaking of recordings, I developed what I wish I could say is a mini-obsession but is actually a maxi-obsession with Mahler recordings. I bought them in droves, listening for the slightest differences between recordings, ranking favorites, constantly seeking information about new recordings, and taking up an awful lot of physical space in whatever I was calling home at the time. A perfect illustration of the absurd lengths I went to (who am I kidding…continue to go to) acquiring Mahler recordings is reflected by my current CD shelving approach. In the interest of saving space, I put my CDs in plastic sleeves with the liner notes and put them in black mesh baskets that you can buy at Target. I don’t know how many CDs fit in each basket, but I have my entire collection down to ten of these things. One entire basket is devoted to Mahler…from the 4th Symphony on. Another basket is half-filled with Mahler from everything up to the 3rd Symphony. Essentially, Mahler CDs comprise 15% of my entire collection. And this is to say nothing of LPs or digital recordings. I’m just guessing, but I suspect that I have somewhere around 400 Mahler recordings. This is, of course, a trifle compared to many collectors, but it is still indicative of my reckless pursuit of the next great recording. I’ll never forget going to the Tower Records up in the Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle, buying a couple recordings or other, driving home (about half an hour one way), hearing something on the radio about a recording of Mahler 1 conducted by Kiril Kondrashin that took place hours before he died, driving back to the same Tower Records in one of the most torrential downpours I’ve ever seen in the Pacific Northwest, and buying that recording. What a dumbass I am, but that Kondrashin recording is fantastic, so maybe I laugh last?
What is it about Mahler that drives me, and thousands of other people around the world, to do shit like this? I won’t presume to speak for anyone else, but for me it comes down to two basic principles: Mahler is freaked out by the same existential questions I am, and he takes me on a musical journey in pursuit of answers that no one else can duplicate.
Mahler spent a good part of his life searching for relief from the plaguing questions many of us have: is this life it? Is there a God? If this rash has been here for more than 5 days, should I see a specialist (just kidding, that’s only me…I mean a friend of mine)? Like most people, thoughts about these questions creep into my consciousness every so often. They clearly crept into Mahler’s consciousness, too, except he went ahead and wrote some of the greatest music in the world in an effort to reconcile his feelings and give us an outlet for our own, whereas I mostly just eat Cheetos and watch Netflix to take my mind off it. It’s said that Mahler’s symphonies are all connected and in some ways form one large, cohesive work. I don’t know if I entirely agree with that, but I will agree that they are all part of the same creative and psychological process, and that’s why there is comfort found in the late works. The transformation from the nagging doubts of Totenfeier through the pain of the Sixth to the acceptance of the Ninth and Das Lied is in all of us. Mahler shows us the path to, if not peace, at least peaceful resignation. But even in the calm repose of the final movements of the Symphony no. 9 and Das Lied von der Erde, it’s not quite that simple.
Ken Woods has a great post about Mahler’s approach to musical transformation. This is one of the biggest reasons Mahler appeals to me so much: you gotta want it. Mahler makes you work for your answers, musically, emotionally, physically. This is an artistic approach that speaks to me across forms. I love the film There Will Be Blood for much the same reason; witnessing the slow and shocking unraveling of Daniel Plainview requires a commitment on our part that is not required in every movie. One of my favorite video games was called “True Crime: Streets of LA.” Unlike the Grand Theft Auto games (which were clearly an inspiration for lots of video games), in “True Crime” they basically used a scale map of the real Los Angeles as the location for the game’s events. The notorious LA traffic wasn’t in there, but the scale was legit, and I loved it. It wasn’t just, “drive for 20 seconds until you get to the nightclub where the murder took place.” If you were out in Hacienda Heights and had to go to Pacific Palisades, you had to get on I-10 and drive. And drive. For 15 minutes of real time. I really dug that, why I don’t know.
But that’s Mahler. Take the finale of the Sixth Symphony, for example. Every note of that journey has to be there. It has to be. It’s pretty hard to say that about a movement that usually takes 30 minutes or more to complete, but it’s true. The visceral impact of the end of the symphony requires it. The sheer magnitude of the defeat suffered at the hands of Fate is only that heavily burdensome because of the lofty quest for triumph that Mahler takes us on. Being transformed requires time (which is why the transformation of Thor in the new movie is so ridiculous…a brief lecture about manners in a coffee shop and he’s a changed man?) and investment. Mahler’s music gives us so much because it demands so much from us.
Ultimately, Mahler is my favorite composer because his music speaks for me the way my own words cannot. The entire human experience can be found in the pages of his scores; all the beauty and tragedy, the frustrations and the conquests, the earthly and the heavenly. Mahler’s claim, in his famous discussion with Sibelius, that the symphony “must be like the world, it must embrace everything” is incredibly audacious, but he achieved his all-encompassing vision in a way that no one at the time could have imagined. It doesn’t matter what your background is or where you came from, there is something in Mahler for you. My life is immeasurably better because of Gustav Mahler, and, if there is a life after this one, I hope to tell him that.