Friday, October 08, 2010

Day Break

The stars are fading, the shadows almost broken
The window is pale with a distant light.
Disarmed by beauty, I make the moon my shield
Seeking reflections in the twice-touched water.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Monday, October 04, 2010


[with thanks to km, who recommended this]

The first thing you hear when you enter Heaven is Ode to Joy. Note after triumphant note, the music announces the final victory of brotherhood, the end of all despair. Beethoven himself, his hearing restored, stands on the dais, conducting an orchestra of angels dressed in dazzling white. Your heart soars. You march towards the ivory gate holding your head straight and your shoulders high, proud to be part of this immortal company, to have joined, through long hardship, the ranks of the blessed.

It is only when you get closer that you notice the circles under the composer's eyes. He looks haunted, worn. He motions desultorily with his baton, secure in the knowledge that the angels will play the piece perfectly even if he directs them wrong.

And you begin to imagine what it must be like for him: the greatest composer in history, the man who changed music forever, author of masterpiece after masterpiece, each angrier and more sublime than the last; and to be rewarded for that lifetime of furious perfection with this job as a glorified organ-monkey, conducting the same piece over and over, on endless repeat.


The first thing you hear when you enter Hell is Mozart's Dies Irae. And there he is himself, long hair flying, feet strutting like a rock-star's, smile leery with mischief, Wolfgang Amadeus and his orchestra of demons, volcanoes blazing behind him, winged monsters screeching through the air.

The music like a hammer-blow of judgment, beating you down.

Only there is something different about this piece. It sounds not wrong exactly, but a little strange. Is that a phrase from Don Giovanni? And surely that drumming comes from Sabbath? You look again at the orchestra and realize the players are sweating, struggling to keep up. Mozart is wrong-footing them, twisting the music in mid-air, whimsically changing the score on the sheets even as they are playing it. And it begins to dawn on you that this is not the Dies Irae you listened to on Earth. This is something altogether more unexpected, altogether more treacherous. In the centuries that he has been here, Mozart has subjected his score to a thousand variations, twisted and turned it a million different ways. What remains is an organic labyrinth of music, an endless architecture of harmonies only his agile mind can find its way through.

The music stops. Mozart's face lights up with an impish grin. His eye gleams. He waits just long enough for the orchestra to get their tired breath back, then launches into a furious new allegro. The music is loud, almost overwhelming, but as you pass by the dais you can faintly hear the sound of the maestro humming to himself.