Friday, May 3, 2019

That Moment of Stillness

The concert hall was filled with human beings.  It was close to capacity, with almost every seat taken.  Almost two thousand persons, gathered in a space, listening to a trio of the world's best musicians play a series of classical pieces. 

One of the great advantages of modern-era music?  It's amplified, pouring out through vast speaker arrays, filling the air with itself, smothering the presence of human beings.  Space is left for applause and call-outs to the audience, but when the music is TURN'T UP, it shoulders us aside.  We are there, but we are not there enough to intrude.

This was different.  No amplification, no nothing.  Just piano, cello, violin, and the natural acoustics of the venue.   It was a pure, organic experience, and as such was a perfect reminder that pure, organic human beings are...well...we're kind of noisy.  We rustle.  We stir.  We drop things.  We murmur and shift in place.  And at the height of pollen season, we cough.  Oh dear sweet baby Jesus, do we cough. 

Echoing through the perfect acoustics of a modern concert hall, allergy season isn't the friend of the listener. 

As the musicians played their first piece, Mendelssohn's lovely Piano Trio No. 1, our noisy humanness was impossible to escape.  We intruded constantly on the music, coughing and snorting and sneezing.   And dropping things.  Evidently those programs were slippery.

During the break between pieces, the gathered mass of humanity hacked and hawked and cleared its collective throat, to the point where I wondered if this particular concert happened to include Patients Zero through Four hundred and Fifty two in a major pandemic outbreak.  People shifted and talked, the room alive with the sound of our collective bustle.

But at the beginning of the second piece, there came this...moment.  It was at the start of the second piece, Shostakovich's Piano Trio #2 in E minor.  I'd never heard it before.  It's a stark, challenging work, sometimes sublime, often harsh, teasing with sorrowful near-harmonies.  It begins with the cello, way up high at the top of its register, sweet and soft and intimate.

In that great room, alive with the sounds of nearly two thousand humans, that cello was barely audible.  A whisper of beauty, so quiet as to be almost outside of the range of hearing, almost lost in the sound of the natural movement of our mass.  We weren't trying to be loud.  No one was coughing or dropping things.  Even so, we were still all moving, just a little, all together, enough to make it hard to hear.

But we were also all listening for the music.  Every person in that vast space wanted to hear.  We were all paying attention.  And from that shared desire, the whole room went still.   Completely, totally, still.

All at once, there was near absolute silence.  Not a person moving, breath held in thousands of lungs, not a one of us shifting, all holding perfectly motionless as the cello sang clearly in the space we together had made for it.

That great receptive quiet was, in its own way, as beautiful as the music itself.

How often in life do all of us grow still, not just one or two of us, but all, listening together to a voice that can only be heard in that place of deep gathered silence?