I was once the bored kid staring at the ornate ceiling of the symphony. All that scroll and gold leaf and the fact that I was in a dress, let me know that this was a special occasion. Not everyone got to sit in a velvet seat and listen to a symphony. But I didn’t understand the music. Even though I tuned our radio to the classical station every night before we sat down to dinner. Even though I clunked and plunked my way through the simplest pieces on our piano for many years.
In all the years since then, I’ve never thought to attend a classical performance on my own. Certainly not on a whim. Whim is generally not my M.O. But, almost by accident, I found out that Kronos Quartet was playing at Reed College. I’d listened to some of their music over the years and sitting alone in a theater filled with strings sounded about right.
I knew I wouldn’t understand it. My ears didn’t know how to find and follow the patterns. My mind didn’t know what to do with arpeggios, crescendos, and dissonance. My eyes only led me astray, fixing on the curve of the cellists’ wrist or the shade of the violinist’s shirt for just long enough that I lost the thread of the music in just the same way that I often lose the arc of a story read aloud. And then there were the distractions: the repetitive clank of a woman’s bracelet, a cough, the row of seats shaking as the boy beside me rocked his head with the music, clearly more in synch with it than me.
I moved away from the bouncing boy to an empty space in the very last row. So far away, the music hit me softly. I wanted to reach over and turn up the volume, to feel the notes in me as if the bow were riding across my muscles. But no. I had to concentrate. Which, in this case, meant not engaging my mind. Which meant not engaging all of my senses. Which meant finding the sound and sinking into its confusion and uncertainty.
I closed my eyes and eventually, I heard a sprinkler rattatatatat. I heard a train moan. I heard a sob.
Because it was beautiful music beautifully played. Because the music was the same piece used in one of my favorite movies. Because the movie was also one of my friend’s favorite movies (we’d been talking about it just a few days earlier). Because that same friend had called that morning to share some bad news. And because I couldn’t help it, alone in the mostly empty, mostly dark very last row.
This isn’t Kronos or the arrangement they played, but it’s still gorgeous: Wagner’s Prelude from Tristan and Isolde (used in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia)