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I bet that quarter-tone piano would have sounded amazing.

Well, there’s a thought I could never have predicted would wind its way, earnest and devoid of sarcasm, across my mind. Actually it seems like I’ve begun with a joke, a straight-from-the-style-guide strong open, attempting to grab your attention and pique your interest with a nonsense juxtaposition (a quarter-tone piano sounding amazing, imagine! ROFL), from which I would proceed to address you directly, consolidate our writer-reader bond and thus ensnare you to read on, manipulated and against your better judgement, to the end of what will inevitably turn out to be an overlong and pleading rant on why we should all go to more concerts.

But it really isn’t a joke, and it really did cross my mind after watching the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra perform Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony last Friday night. It is true that other experiences in Melbourne have provoked thoughts in my mind that have been confusing or alarming, such as “Prah-Ran? Pran? Pra? Prh?” or “Why are there horses and carriages in the street, as in, the actual CBD? Yes, the busiest streets in the city, exactly…anyone?”, but such was the dizzying, mind-reshuffling nature of the music and its performance that wondering about the sadly malfunctioning synthesiser and what I was missing by its absence seemed entirely ordinary.

Of course, it is absurd to think ordinary the pondering of a quarter-tone piano that shat itself* immediately before an enormous performance, transforming its be-tailed commander into a glorified but uncomfortably mute stage crasher. In fact, this was a startling and highly unusual thing to witness in a concert hall, a statement which is equally valid when applied to the Fourth Symphony itself. I knew a thing or two about Ives before this concert, distant and dim memories about the Concord Sonata and Ralph Waldo Emerson bobbing like ghost ships on the ocean of hazy and half-attended Bachelor degree courses, but I never knew anything about the Fourth Symphony. Not of the fact that it had never been performed in Australia before, nor that it required two conductors, a choir or an off-stage band. An exhortation by MSO pianist Leigh Harrold alerted me to its impending performance, and convinced me to go.

I bought a ticket at the box office on the night with the unashamed request “I’d like one of the cheapest tickets, please”, proceeded to my seat in the absolute-very-last-row of the three-tiered hall, replete with vertigo-inducing aspect and lower oxygen count, and pleasantly enjoyed the concert’s first half of easily digestible Haydn and honey-trap Rachmaninoff Paganini Variations.*** Up to this point my mind was in its usual state, passing back and forth between attentiveness to the performance and various mundanities of existence. An entirely normal concert experience, in other words. The interval came around and having flouted two social conventions already (going out alone and proudly purchasing the cheapest seat) I decided to go for the hat-trick, and drank a cup of tea.

Then came the Ives, a truly extraordinary masterpiece, a unique rendering of humanity, existence, the universe into sound. There is just so much in it: a separately conducted percussion group in the fourth movement symbolising the passage of time, a second movement “Comedy” based on Hawthorne’s The Celestial Railroad, multi-metrics, an off-stage 5-violin and harp “ensemble of angels”. That the first movement contains a choir singing the hymn words “Watchman, tell us of the night, what its sign of promise are. Traveler, what a wondrous sight: see that glory-beaming star” gives you a further indication of the artistic ambition evident in this piece.

I am no scholar though, and cannot elucidate all of the symphony’s virtues in this context. Professor Wikipedia had this to say of the second movement: “It is his most extreme essay in overlapping thematic material…most complex in its use of multi-metrics and temporal dyssynchronies, and is compositionally his most complex orchestral work”.

I know, temporal dyssynchronies…that’s what we were all thinking. Basically, it was like this: imagine a filmic montage made from five-second snippets of footage that somehow encapsulated everything about humanity and the universe. Whatever comes into your mind, it doesn’t matter. Perhaps a time-lapse of a blooming flower; a child’s devastation as an overly melted ice-cream scoop slides off a cone to a splashy demise; a hiker’s exhausted last steps over a summit; a hand held to a lover’s cheek; a goose-stepping army; a dog chasing a car; a tennis racquet; an aurora; a cupcake. Anything. Imagine you’re viewing these images on a hundred different screens, and they’re going so fast and relentlessly that you can’t possibly take it all in, but you’re aware of what you’re being bombarded with, nothing less than all of it. And each snippet has 5 seconds of a song that you know, but just as your ear is starting to pick out a melody to the point of recognition, it has vanished, elusive, irretrievable. This goes on and on, and more and more screens are flickering at you, and the songs are getting louder and louder and louder. Amongst the clamour you’re at once aware of your anonymity and comforted by it, just another one of countless anonyms.

And then it all stops. Your ears ring out, your senses recalibrate, and there, alone at the back of violas, one lone voice continues, unchanged, unaffected. One screen, flickering out its version of life. Far away on the other side of the orchestra, another voice begins again, not in unity, but nevertheless present, as if to communicate: “we’ll never say the same thing, but we’ll say it together”. Little by little other voices rejoined and the music built up to yet another and then another enormous climax.

And there I sat, a lone observer, high up in the farthest corner of this space, deeply provoked by what I was witnessing. At first I was struck by the very obvious existential questions that clearly arise from all of this, but I soon found myself focusing on the extent to which my own role as an audience member was affecting my experience of the performance. Certainly, my own isolation in that particular moment heightened my connection to and affinity with the solitary orchestral voices that were left stranded, but I looked around and knew that each audience member was engaging with that music in a completely different way. We were our own sea of flickering screens.

I started to pull at this thread from the perspective of a performer, as I am and many of you reading this are (many may be a stretch, but one can hope). I wondered if audience members who don’t also perform realise how active their role in a performance is. In any great concert as a performer, it was great because the audience enabled it, were present and willing to be moved, to disconnect from an outside world of distraction and engage with other humans in ineffable communication. Recordings are wonderful things but it is in the live concert hall, the live pub, the live theatre, that the audience plays this crucial role, and I was struck by my own need to go and see more live arts. What I was witnessing was extraordinary, in the fullest sense of that word. It could not be replicated in any other setting, and it was for this reason exhilarating in the extreme. So to you, dear reader, the last one standing who made it all the way to the end, I say, go out! Play a vital role in a great performance simply by being an audience member. You never know, you might get lucky and actually hear a quarter-tone piano.

*No pianist was soiled in the making of this metaphor **

**As far as I know

***The 18th variation of which, I am disgusted to say, moved me. I was simultaneously aware of my emotional response and the extent to which I was being manipulated by the composer. Urgh. It’s like being physically attracted to someone who for intellectual reasons you deeply don’t want to be physically attracted to. The brain says NO but – well, you all know how it is.

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At the back of a stage dense with seated bodies, a man in fancy dress wanders sheepishly, paper in hand. He has made his move slightly early and must pause, lean on steps nonchalantly, check music, wait, put music on stand, insert earplugs. Wait. His presence sparks a wave of surreptitious earplug fortification amongst the concerned and surely a-tensing and a-clenching of muscle and buttock amongst the unprotected. Despite being fixed to cushion, the entire orchestra bends and sways in turbulent response to the music’s climbing intensity, clarinets aroused to the horizontal, trombones punching and jabbing, strings wrestling, scrum-like, for a victory so desperately sought.

Behind this orgy of stationary movement, our man ascends three steps with great deliberation and subtle theatricality to face a giant block of wood, a proto-instrument, primordial in its simplicity. With a gentle roll of the wrists he contemplates the enormous wooden hammer that lies upon the block, and like Arthur claiming Excalibur (ahem…Thor is probably a better reference… Ed.), he takes fate into his grasp. Slow and ominously, the hammerhead is brought high, held teasingly and then sent crashing down, a dull-timbred violence to crush our hope and excite our adrenal gland.

And excited I was. My body thrummed, my mind whooped and a smile assaulted its way across my face when I witnessed this exact scene last Thursday night, at a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Whether it was adrenalin or dopamine or an addiction-worthy cocktail of pleasure chemicals that was released I cannot say, but after experiencing this highly effective theatrical device for a second time later in the fourth movement, a life-destroying habit was well on its way to formation.

You may never have heard of Mahler nor heard any of his music and thus be utterly mystified by those three paragraphs, and somewhat concerned for my mental state if I really thought I saw a man hit a block of wood with a hammer on a concert hall stage (GIANT block and hammer, if you please). And all this talk of hands grasping fate, pugilistic trombones and missed Thor references may have you questioning how I could possibly think I’m qualified to write about music (I’m not. No more than you, in any case. I’m just an egotist with a weakness for parentheses). But such is Mahler and his musical world. A world of myth and superstition, of genre-breaking dimensions, fate, tragedy, and heroes felled like trees (that’s the whole hammer thing…get it?).

Or so we’re told anyway. Mythology is a powerful force and it winds its beguiling way through the lives and music of many composers, obscuring truth, bestowing unintended significance or just generally being a drama king. And we love it. It’s in our human nature to create narratives, to give meaning to the unexplained and mysterious, to order the disordered into that to which we can relate. The personal mythologies of our heroes can bring them closer to us, can allow us to feel like we know them, even just a little bit, so that the stories they are telling can reach us deeper.

Mahler’s personal mythology is especially rich. We think he personifies the “curse of the Ninth”, a superstition that a ninth symphony will be a composer’s last. This because he: disguised his actual ninth symphony as the symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde, numbered his next work as the ninth symphony, believed he had overcome fate, began composing a tenth symphony but died before completing it. To spoil a good story: Mahler is not known to have referred to this curse; it was Schoenberg, in an essay on Mahler, who wrote: “It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away”.

In regard to the Symphony No.6, most of the extra-musical aspects of the surrounding mythology come from Alma Mahler, Gustav’s wife and a source now deemed so unreliable amongst Mahler scholars that gleaning truth from her anecdotes is referred to as the “Alma Problem”. The most captivating of these myths, for me, concerns those hammer blows. Mahler stipulates in the score that they should sound like the blow of an axe (“wie ein Axthieb”). Alma said they were three hammer blows of fate, the last of which “fells the hero like a tree”. So far, so believable. She also identified them with three momentous events in Mahler’s life which befell him after the composition of this symphony: the death of their eldest daughter Maria Anna, his forced resignation from the Vienna Court Opera and his diagnosis of rheumatic heart disease, at that time a death sentence, execution date unknown.

This is of the ilk of the curse of the ninth, superstitious, death-fixated, highly captivating and yet very far-fetched. Does it really matter? If a personal mythology brings a listener closer to a composer such that their music becomes more moving or powerful, so what? For me, intellectually, the notion that Mahler somehow predestined those three calamities by composing a symphony is just too fanciful; it requires a level of superstition that my mind simply does not possess. But my heart? Oh yes, my heart.

My noisy, whooshing, dishwasher heart. So has it been named when a lover’s head, seeking repose, has laid itself upon my chest and heard – like a handful of cars going the wrong way down a highway at peak hour – the cacophony of regurgitation, as blood which should be jetting out of my dodgy aortic valve attempts to return. Yours may go ba-dum, ba-dum (here’s hoping. If not…maybe get that checked out?), mine goes b-whooooosh-dum, b-whoooosh-dum. And in that stuttering instant, I can reach back through the veil of a hundred years and connect directly to an Austrian whose music I adore.

Huh? How’s that? Because in amongst all that mythology, of Mahler the tyrannical conductor, Mahler the creative genius, Mahler the controlling husband, I find Mahler the terrified, with a ruined valve and a heart murmur. Mine has a whoosh and his had a whistle, with Alma saying “for years I had been frightened by the whistling sound that could be heard very loudly on the second beat” (the opening gesture of his Symphony no.9 is a rendering of this murmur). A diseased heart valve, with its damaged wall and compromised blood flow, is at risk of infection in a way that a healthy valve is not. I was brought up to be terrified of a visit to the dentist because of this risk, to take antibiotics beforehand as prophylaxis and to be on high alert for two or three days after, looking out for any flu-like symptoms that may have indicated my valve was infected (catch it too late and your chances are grim). In Mahler’s time, I can only imagine that this fear would have been ever-present, and it did eventually get him. Four years after his diagnosis, two months shy of his 51st birthday, he was dead.

But that’s just it. I can actually imagine this. And it brings him – a man of another era, another culture, and of abilities I cannot relate to – right inside me, to my own most terrified moments. Moments that are hard to explain to even my closest loved ones, he experienced too. And it’s because of the mythology of his life that I know this, that his already powerful music can affect me like no other. As a result, when that hammer fell, my body felt it as though it were the hammer blow of his diagnosis, as if the mythology my head can’t believe was true. And what a rush it was. Now I’ll have to search out more performances of this symphony. I need another hit.