As a tourist in the UK, I managed to arrange a trip to Stonehenge. A must see. One of the wonders of the world, about 13km North of Salisbury. A mysterious pile of rocks which no-one knows much about with any certainty, it fitted nicely in to the to-do list of a few days off. See the pier where Dorsett where “Sophie’s Choice” was filmed, book your tickets for the Royal Albert Hall, make sure to catch the Pharaos at the British Musem, it had rave reviews all over the “What’s On” Magazine. Borrowing a car, we panicked about paying for fuel in pounds and rushed off to squeeze the most out of our week-end and saved-up pounds.
We drove for miles following cryptic maps, eventually coming to a green grassy hill – really rather a drab looking hill, if you come from Africa. In the distance were some greyish rocks. We bought tickets, in Pounds, fretting about the mounting expenses. We were herded through the obligatory tourist shop, followed the signs that went UNDERNEATH the freeway, ushered along briskly by black-clad security-guards warning us to Mind the Gap, Mind your head, Mind the door opening, mind the door closing, do not to touch the rocks, do not wander off the path, don’t do this don’t do that.
And suddenly and at last we were there. A pile of rocks – much smaller than I’d imagined from years of paging through “Wonders of the World” – which no-one seemed to know too much about. Possibly erected around 3000 BC to 2000 BC. OK! Been here done that, maybe get the T-shirt at the shop on the way back. The sky was grey, the grass was a polite British green, the tourists well-behaved and we walked around the circular Stonehenge in about 15 minutes. Great. Well, we could go now. The nearest town or shop is miles away and there aren’t even birds. Well, there aren’t even trees for the birds. Just a few rocks. And now we’d seen them.
But it took 5 hours to get here, and it would be a waste to just leave after a quarter-hour, so let’s walk around again. And we did. 2, 3, maybe 4 times. And slowly, very inconspicuously, the world started slowing down. Pound-exchange rates and the fuel-price started receding. I walked and walked and walked. On each revolution, I walked slower. Noticed more. The rocks had multiple shades. The shadows – even though the sun was not that same bright African “autocorrect” – were noticeable. The way the blades of grass touched the roots of the stones. Then you start to feel the weight of the stones. At first your mind goes the familiar route of “how did they get them up there” and you replay the various options from the books and the audio-guide. They were brought from far away, perhaps rolled on logs from a forest that once grew here, hoisted up like the Pyramid builders by building sand-dunes and then removing the sand again once the stones were in place. You marvel and marvel at the ingenuity and the scientific knowledge. Until, at some point, you STOP. You stop thinking about the “who did this” and “Why” and the impossible “how”. You stop THINKING about it and you start to FEEL about it. Feel the space. Feel the stones. Feel your mind quieten down. When a military jet flies overhead it feels like an obscene perverse miscalculation. Stonehenge is not the curiosity here, but rather this large noisy metallic weapon of war – loaded with technology that could kill thousands of people – flying over a peaceful countryside where there is no war raging.
Dialogue with a Rock
Karlheinz Gadamer’s philosophy of the “Expansion of Horizons” comes to mind. Two ever-expanding circles expand to the point where they intersect. And with that expansion comes an awareness of the effect of the other on yourself. When you are studying a work of art, it is, in fact, studying you. Studying your ability to comprehend it. You are not looking at Stonehenge and understanding it. Stonehenge is looking at you. It is changing you. Your perceptions change as you are forced to interact with it on its own terms. Gadamer does not conceive the temporal or spatial distance between the viewer and object (or interpreter and the text) to be interpreted primarily as an obstacle, but rather as the very source of the productivity of understanding. He defines this dialogic process of understanding as a fusion of horizons (Horizontverschmelzung) (Gadamer, H. G. (1986). Wahrheit und Methode, Grunzüge einer Philosophischen Hermeneutik. Gesammelte Werke I. Tübingen: Mohr.p. 311). The partners in a conversation construct a language that did not exist prior to their conversation, but is developed in the dialogue. In this constructive process, we are “transformed into a communion, in which we do not remain what we were” (Ibid., p. 384). A genuine dialogue always involves rising to a higher universality that overcomes not only our own particularity but also that of the other. The concept of “horizon” suggests itself because it expresses the superior breadth of vision that the person who is trying to understand must have. To acquire a horizon means that one learns to look beyond what is close at hand—not in order to look away from it but to see it better, within a larger whole and in truer proportion. (Ibid., p. 310)
Meanwhile: In Estonia
What has a bunch of Prehistoric Stones in Wiltshire got to do with music by an Estonian 20th and 21st Century Composer? Arvo Pärt was born Sept. 11 1935. An intensely private and introvert man, the occupation of Estonia by the USSR would leave a lasting impression on the man and his music. Pärt often turned to periods of contemplative silence from composing. He emerged after one of these periods 1976 after a transformation so radical as to make his previous music almost unrecognisable as that of the same composer. The technique he invented, or discovered, and to which he has remained loyal, practically without exception, he calls “tintinnabuli” (from the Latin, little bells). He describes this technique:
“I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements —with one voice, two voices. I build with primitive materials —with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells and that is why I call it tintinnabulation.”
The basic guiding principle behind tintinnabulation of composing two simultaneous voices as one line – one voice moving stepwise from and to a central pitch, first up then down, and the other sounding the notes of the triad – made its first public appearance in the short piano piece, Für Alina and can be found in much of his music.
Spiegel in Spiegel composed in 1978, just before Pärt left Estonia for Berlin, was originally written for single piano and violin, though many other versions exist, including for piano and ‘cello, or viola, clarinet, flute, and percussion. An example of minimalist music, it has a meditative and serene simplicity in both its structure and tonalities, so much so that it has been ridiculed as “holy minimalism”. On the face of it, it is like Stonehenge. Somebody decided to arrange the notes in a specific pattern, the reason for which might not be clear at all. There is a very austere and rigorous structural principal at work: Three Bell-like notes that start the piece, set in motion a little engine that propels the piece forward for 10 minutes, without “doing much” in the conventional sense. No thematic development or modulations exist. The melody centres around a central note A. Then it approaches the A from One Note Below and then the mirror, One Note Above. Then Two Notes Below, then Two Notes Above. The strings of notes become longer, always returning to that central note, the one which Pärt describes so poignantly: “This one note….comforts me”. On paper, the piece is ridiculously easy to play. Repetitive triads played as broken chords, a few Bell-like high notes and one or two anchoring octaves. The solo-instrument plays slow, sustained long notes, the stuff children’s books are made of.
Meanwhile: Back in Africa
Programmed as part of a Lenten Meditation Cello & Piano Concert in St. George’s Cathedral, a historical landmark of Cape Town, I finally have a reason to dig up the score and start the archeological process of deciphering the hieroglyphics – part of the study of every new piece. So, I sit down to play it on my own. Easy. F major triads in a moderate tempo: Plink Plonk Plonk. Sorted. F Major here, a clever little swop of the hands to get quick and easy access to a high note and in 5 minutes: all sorted. Ready to meet the cellist.
Except that I haven’t actually PLAYED it. Then I get together with Sarah, the cellist. We start. It’s awful. It sounds like a bad piece, badly played. Cello intonation is almost impossible to sustain at such slow speed and the pianist can’t keep a straight ¾ beat that slowly for half a page let alone 10 minutes. You want to rush, you want to drag. You want SOMETHING TO HAPPEN. You want to underline the modulations, you want to “place” the bass octaves the way a Ballet dancers places his Ballerina on her points after lowering her from a lift. And this silly little Pink Plink Plonk-business is virtually unplayable.
A week later we meet again. Well, we CAN play the notes, the speed is a bit more settled, intonation starts to fall into place, except for some questions about if the Cello should play bits of it up or down an Octave. Do we want a baritonal warm and human quality or something stratospheric and angelic? We’ll have to see what comes before and after the work on the programme. But we don’t really need to rehearse an F Major Triad, do we? But we’re here now, we might as well actually PLAY the whole thing. Like that time at Stonehenge. Might as well go around one more time…
And as we play, we start to listen more and play less. Analyse less and feel more. Worry less about how little is going on and discover minute inflections that were there all along, our ears were just moving too fast to notice them before. And at some point, I let go of the little “tuku tuku tuku” subdivisions I say silently to myself to avoid rushing and getting impatient with the slow pace. It is as if you start to swim in each note. And you discover that to swim the whole length of a note from creation to its end, actually takes a very long time.
As Treebeard tells Pippin: “You must understand, young Hobbit, it takes a long time to say anything in Old Entish. And we never say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say.” [Lord of the Rings: Tolkien]
The Cello needs time to live each note. And suddenly, in a piece where seemingly nothing happens, you are listening intently for the placing of that note. The rehearsals at first happen in the middle of a teaching day in a loud and busy All-Boys School. And our rehearsals become a meditation in the midst of chaos, a finding of that solid resonant inner-A, that triad of bells that rings quietly and assuredly at the heart of the matter. And so the dialogue becomes like an image reflected in the mirror many times: Pianist and Composer, Pianist and Cellist, Pianist and the instrument, and I daresay, once we get to the actual piano in the Cathedral, the dialogues will continue and include the great building and its feedback.
Playing this piece has changed me, as I knew it would from the first time I heard it, when I had to walk rhythmically to the music on a giant chessboard, where it acted as the pallet-cleansing mind-orientation introduction to a Theatershow about the history of Tango, directed by Marthinus Basson. Hearing it many times, moving to it, dancing to it and loving it for almost a decade – none of this prepared me for the effect that playing it would have on me.
Spiegel im Spiegel: Mirror in Mirror, or Mirrors in Mirrors. Who is looking, who is looking back? Which is the object, which the reflection? Which is ancient, which is avant-garde?
Francis Wilson puts it beautifully: “The notes themselves are not difficult, but it is important to set an appropriate tempo for the music (too slow and it could sound ponderous). Then the main task is to set the mood of reflection, with the notes falling like water dropping into water, and to play the notes “as beautifully as possible” (Tasmin Little, violinist). The music, in effect, plays itself: there is absolutely no need for over-interpretation, and one should simply step back, “have faith” in the music, and the composer’s ability to create a mesmeric tranquility.” (The Crosseyed Pianist)
The deeper you look into the mirror, the deeper it looks back. The deeper you listen to the music, the deeper it listens to the depths of your soul. You set out to find Stonehenge. Now let it find you.
A Short Meditation Inspired by this work:
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