An essay by Mark Sebastian Jordan.
Not in a bad way. In a just-got-laid-out-flat by the energy of the universe way.
Every once in a great, rare while, you hear exactly the right piece of music in exactly the right performance at exactly the right time in your life. And it will shake you.
For me, it happened tonight, October 5, 2017, in Severance Hall, when I heard the Cleveland Orchestra and conductor Franz Welser-Möst own Mahler’s Sixth. It immediately lept to my short list of greatest concert experiences, ever.
Why the piece matters and why this concert matters goes back a ways. It’s not performed all that often, glittering black beast that it is. Not only is this symphony fiendishly difficult, it’s also long—about 80 minutes—and ends darkly after tumultuous struggle. Not exactly a crowd-pleaser, it would seem, yet the piece is beloved by many, because it is a powerful emotional statement.
The most powerful word
I am where I always wanted to be. It’s hard to get people to believe that, seeing that I’m a poor, struggling writer and performer. But I was a sensitive kid, and I figured out a lot of things early on. By age ten, I knew that I was always going to be an outsider—growing up queer in rural Ohio will do that to you. So I quickly grasped that I’d always have to take an oblique angle on things.
Then around age 12 or 13, I picked up an old anthology of American Poetry at the Goodwill store and started browsing it. By this time I had already discovered classical music (if I’m going to be out of the main stream, I might was well go full bore, right?) and liked to read poetry and “hear” in my imagination what a poem would sound like if it were orchestral music instead of spoken words. I had found some good symphonic poetry by Sidney Lanier and enjoyed reading them to myself on the school bus. But I was always on the prowl for more.
One day on the ride home from Shelby Junior High School, I started reading a poem called “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” by Walt Whitman. After the first page, I flipped ahead and was startled to find it ran several pages. But I couldn’t stop. This moody and evocative use of words blew right past Sidney Lanier and left him in the tidewater swamps. It was the wind-swept, sea-dashed story of a boy my age who snuck down to the beach every night to listen to a couple of sea birds sing to each other. Ecstatically, the boy translated their sounds into tremulous and soaring songs. I recognized that boy as doing something like I did, translating words back into music. I dug this kid.
Then after a storm, one of the birds disappears. A new world, one of sorrow, is revealed to the boy. After I got home, I had homework and dinner and such, but I had to return to Whitman’s poem to see what happened. Late that night, I stayed up in my bed, seized with the uncanny feeling that I was reading about myself. As the boy translated the bird’s despair, I was shaken. Suddenly I understood about love and loss.
The boy then turns to the sea and asks if so much has been revealed to him, why can’t the most powerful word of all be given to him? In a shock current of recognition, I realized that I was that boy. I, too, wanted, no, needed to know that most powerful word of all. And slowly the sea answered:
Whereto answering, the sea,
Delaying not, hurrying not,
Whisper’d me through the night, and very plainly before day-break,
Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word death,
And again death, death, death, death,
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous’d child’s heart,
But edging near as privately for me rustling at my feet,
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over,
Death, death, death, death, death.
With that sensuous laving of the most powerful word, I found my calling, just like the boy. I was to be a singer of songs, too. Whether poems or novels or fireside stories or even musical songs didn’t matter. I was marked to sing.
Now that I knew the most powerful word, I was amazed to look around me and see how the adults deflected, denied, and hid from the word. Here I was, just some kid, and I was the only one willing to look at the elephant in the room.
All the blind souls learn a thing or two about that elephant, but no one puts it together. I’ve lived long enough now that I’m more generous with those who turn away from death. I get it, now. Every single person you know and love will die. If you’re lucky, you’ll go before them, but statistically, it’s likely you’ll get to know the monstrous void of loss.
But as a kid, I saw people running in fear, losing their nobility, trying to hide from the inevitable. I wanted to somehow deal with it.
I detailed my first encounter with the music of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler in another post on this blog. I hated his supercharged urgency at first, until curiosity won me over. Then his sarcasm and use of irony won me over. Then I heard his Ninth Symphony and saw that this guy was fearless about peering into the void.
When I heard Mahler’s Sixth around age fifteen, my life changed. Not at first, of course. The work was huge and all but incomprehensible to my young ears, but the daring darkness of it, leavened always by glittering scatters of light, kept pulling me back in. Finally, I realized that this was it: this was the music that matched Whitman’s most powerful word, this is music that danced with the demon of the dark side, this was the music that dared to walk into the middle of a crowded room of laughing people, and weep.
Over the next few years, the life/death struggle of Mahler’s Sixth became my universe. I carried the music around in my head, turning fragments of it over and over again in distracted wonder, French lessons and organic chemistry sliding through my ears without stopping, ears hooked as they were to something else.
When I first came out at age 18, the quiet chill was so still, I thought I might leave this world. One particular afternoon, I put on a recording of Mahler’s Sixth and listened to it, head in hands, all the way to the shattering end. Then I did an extraordinary thing. I restarted it and listened the whole way through, again. This time, I was listening to every turn of phrase for clues, because there was something about this struggling, buffeted music that made me not want to give up. Its ritual of catharsis enacted death. I, who struggled mightily with sheep bleats of traditional religion, found my own personal Jesus in that symphony. It died so that I might live. Everything I have done since that afternoon is because Mahler showed me the way to keep going.
Armed with the knowledge of the most powerful word and the escape route to keep me from being poisoned by its strength, I entered college utterly unconvinced by the whole exercise. Of course, I dropped out, though it took a while as I made friends and became a theatre rat. But when I could no longer stand it, I didn’t find it hard to part with. I still knew I’d always be outside the structures of academia, our business world, our society. And I was at peace with that, because of the view. It is from the fringes of society that you get the perspective which reveals the truth of the world to you. And it is the position which allows you the eccentricity to be the guy who talks about the black elephant.
Being a creative artist means, most of the time, that you work a day job. I have worked my fair share, these last eight years running a hostel in an off-the-beaten-path state park. When the company announced that they were shutting down the hostel last month, I felt a potent mix of emotions: loss, anger, relief, fear, excitement. My world was about to realign. The swirl of thoughts began to spin out of control; I couldn’t shut my brain down to sleep at night. Who was I going to be?
Tonight, I heard my answer: You will continue to be that guy. The one seeing the city from a low angle on the sunset horizon. The one twenty blocks and to the left off Main Street. The one who sings “in the midst of life we are in death, et cetera” at the party, the one who cracks the foulest jokes at a funeral. The one to help others put together their blind feelings and use them to find life. The one to get fucked by the energy of the universe and be grateful for it. I will continue to be the boy, fusing my own random songs with the dusky and demon brothers Mahler and Whitman who claimed me as family long ago.
I will continue to be me.
And I will sleep well tonight because of it.