I suppose music imitating nature isn’t a new thing. Whether intentional and explicit as in Beethoven’s pastoral or just through the patina of place and time - Shostakovitch perhaps - you can’t get away from it. Walking around New York City earlier this week, I had my headphones on, Nirvana playing as I walked purposefully down to the bottom of Manhattan to visit my favourite bookshop, Strand Books. Nirvana can make quite a noise, but even they couldn’t drown out the sounds of the city which layered themselves on top. The sound of illegal street sellers shouting in one direction and looking for the law in the other, the constant car horns sounded for a thousand reasons and none, music dripping from stores and the chatter of tourists excitedly spotting landmarks for the first time. In the end I gave up, removed my headphones and floated downtown on a jet lagged soundtrack of the city...and you know what, there were no cows, I heard no Sibelius but instead the rhythms and tones of the Gershwin piano concerto we were playing that night, seemed to drift in and out. Not surprising I suppose in this city of infinite possibilities.
I never really got Sibelius when I was a kid. I’m not the only one either. My mother in law has always loved his music, and repeated plays as a child, left my wife slightly traumatised by what has become known in our house as ‘that symphony with the cows.’ She was scared of it as a kid. In case your relationship with sound and visuals isn’t as vivid as my wife’s, the cows in question are the low grunts from the basses, tuba and bassoons that underpin the final movement of his second symphony. You’ve probably never thought of it before, but if you listen with a child’s ears, it does so
We often stay for a few days in NYC, but on this tour, the morning after the first concert we flew across the country to California. Most people in the band stayed in San Francisco, but a group of us decided to hire a couple of cars and headed out to spend our free day exploring Yosemite National Park. After fighting through the traffic, four hours later we found ourselves checking in to a small motel in Mariposa before heading straight back out to rehydrate in the Golden Coin bar. Earlier, the closer we had got to our destination, the quieter it got, and as the darkness descended the only soundtrack we had was the gentle click of the indicator. Click, clack, click, clack, click, clack.
“Oh no…” said Chris quietly, next to me in the back.
There was a pause.
“What’s up Chris?”
I thought that maybe the windy roads had got too much for him.
“It’s that indicator.”
“The indicator? What’s the matter with the indicator?”
“It’s Sibelius. Specifically, it’s the woodwind parts in the final movement of the 2nd symphony…”
I should point out that the indicator in no way sounds like a cow, but more of a police car siren designed by a drummer...but he was right, it did sound exactly like the woodwind parts which are, I have to say, very dull at that moment. You know the last movement of the piece? It’s got that magnificent melody that swoops and soars like a giant bird. It is a wonderful moment in the piece, and one which if you’re a woodwind player, you don’t really ever play. Instead we all have to go ‘nee naw nee naw nee naw’ repeat ad lib. Sort of. Just listen to it and hopefully you’ll see what I mean. The only time it’s interesting to play is when the melody has one of its rubato moments and we have to place our crotchets more carefully. It’s a bit like trying to hit a moving target. In any case, Chris was right, and from that point on, every time we turned off another road in the middle of the American countryside, we were suddenly transported back to the icy North. I’m not sure it’s what Ford had in mind.
I woke up excited as I’d wanted to see the Giant Redwoods and Sequoia trees since I was a child. I knew they were huge but even having seen so many pictures, nothing could have prepared me for their overwhelming size. Deep in Yosemite there was something which I very rarely find in my life as a musician - silence. But silence which quickly revealed other sounds hiding in its midst, the woodpeckers hiding food in the bark of the tree trunks, squirrels rustling around and the wind high up in the canopy. As we walked through the trees, there were large areas of blackened and burned areas of woodland. The giant bases of the trees looked like charcoal and yet above, high in the sky, they continued to grow as if a small fire at ground level was a minor inconvenience. Given that many of these trees are hundreds of years old and can be over 3000 years old, they must have seen enough fires in their time to not concern themselves, unlike the smaller trees devoured by flame. I discovered later that fire is actually an important part of their lifecycle, in a way it helps them reproduce. When the park began to be managed in the the 1850s, the rangers put out the naturally occurring fires and years later noticed that there were fewer new saplings growing, with other species becoming stronger. Ironically, the rangers now set fires themselves to preserve the integrity of the landscape. We encountered this on the way out as we saw smoke drifting out from the side of the road. There were fire officers, hoses and many small smoldering patches in the woodland. A sign said, “Please do not report. Controlled burning.”
As we turned off away from the smoke, Sibelius indicated that we would be leaving the controlled burning area, click, clack, click, clack, click, clack. I think that’s why it took me longer to appreciate his music. As a teenager, I always wanted the big obvious emotions in my music. I wanted to weep at Mahler and be thrilled by Strauss, it had to be visceral and full fat. Sibelius isn’t like that. Sure, there are the highs of the final movement alongside the car indicator accompaniment and the cows, but a lot of the music contains static beauty, like the enormous rocks of Yosemite which erupt from the ground like sleeping dragons. When the string play pizzicato at the start of the slow movement, time stays still, it doesn’t move forward. Eventually the bassoons of Joost and Dan play a phrase and disappear whilst the pizzicato continue. The phrase again appears, developed before more silence - and then again - but on every phrase the sound they make changes subtly, like the way the colour of the rock faces in Yosemite change depending on the light at different times of the day. The music gradually moves faster, but you are never really aware of an accelerando, like a giant stone gradually gathering speed.
In the awesome natural surroundings of Yosemite, the music of Sibelius with all its Northern ice, seems to fit perfectly with its elemental processes and controlled burning.
Next stop Davis CA and San Francisco
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