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Ear Drums

By A.E. Stallings

So (as Seamus Heaney might begin this). My husband and I actually went to a concert last night, which we have not done in an age. He had managed to swing tickets to a sold-out Alfred Brendel concert at the Megaron Mousikis, an evening of Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart. But we almost didn’t go, because it meant leaving our toddler at home with a raging fever. In the end, his grandmother came over and looked after him, and we guiltily fled for the concert.
Greek audiences are not quiet audiences. They are lively and engaged, even the rather aged, mink-clad dripping-in-Chanel set that is likely to attend a pricey classical concert. Greeks aren’t quiet even in church on the holiest night of the year—there is fidgeting, whispering, the inevitable chirping of cell phones. Still, at a classical concert people know better. Nonetheless, during the first movement of the Haydn, I was actually thinking to myself, you know, this is a pretty fidgety audience (everyone in there seemed to be muffling emphysemic coughs) when Alfred Brendel abruptly stopped playing and announced to the audience that if there was not complete silence, he would not continue.


The shock. The mortification! Suddenly the slightest rustle—someone unwrapping a cough drop, or adjusting in their seat, was met with dagger-glances. A cell phone started to go off and everyone froze like startled rabbits. But Brendel did not stop, the rest of the concert continued, with everyone palpably trying very hard to stay still and not cough. Which was worthwhile, of course, since we were able to listen, really listen, to Brendel as he layed bare the abstract harmonic structures, like winter trees, the melodies singing with joyous precision among the sculptural branches.
OK. Enough similes. But I found myself thinking during the concert about the nature of listening. About how, really, all forms of attention are listening. Even looking at a painting, it suddenly seemed to me, required absolute silence.
The thing is, in Athens as in most cities, what we take for listening is really tuning out. To “listen” to somebody might mean you have to tune out a car alarm, a cell phone, a television, a radio, a jackhammer, a crying baby. We’re used to tuning into a frequency and ignoring everything else. But Alfred Brendel could not tune out the low-level noise in the audience. And we the audience to truly listen could not be tuning anything out either. To hear, the ear had to be open to everything.
I also found myself thinking during the intermission about the new Zemeckis Beowulf movie which we managed to see last week. (What a splurge of going out we have had lately!) I had gone in with the lowest of expectations, and ended up enjoying it in spite of myself. Sure it takes huge liberties (the link among the three monsters, though, is rather ingenious in a Hollywood kind of
way.) But I was pleasantly surprised at the importance the movie placed on poetry and verse, when it could have dispensed with the literary trappings altogether: the goal of life is to become a song, the scops are there to spread the news, there is chanting in what sounds like Old English (I’m no expert), Beowulf’s men are told to sing, and begin belting out bawdy verses in a rollicking trimeter (by Odin! I thought, and Hollywood even got them to scan…) But by far the most interesting thing to me was poor Grendel. The first image we have of him is a rather obscene-looking throbbing membrane. His ear drum, enlarged, naked, is pulsing on the outside of his body. He cannot bear the noise and chanting of the mead hall. He cannot tune it out. Poor thing!–I realized suddenly, feeling a surge of maternal sympathy for the half-formed embryonic creature (not to suggest any similarity between myself and Angelina Jolie…)—he has an ear infection!
It’s a detail the writers had extrapolated from the poem itself. In Heaney’s translation:
Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of man’s beginnings,
how the Almight had made the earth
a glaming plain girdled with waters;
in His splendour He set the sun and the moon
to be earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men,
and filled the broad lap of the world
with branches and leaves; and quickened life
in every other thing that moved.
So there I was in the intermission among the din of the interval hall (the conversation as much about the noisy audience as the concert), in the haze of lit cigarettes, the sudden buzzing of cell phones, the popping of corks, the clatter of designer heels on parquet. We thought better of phoning Yiayia to ask how Jason was doing—it might well wake him up if he were asleep. We talked about the Haydn and the Beethoven. I mentioned I had had a sudden desire to blog about the concert and Beowulf, but couldn’t figure out why. Then it occurred to me—of course, Brendel and Grendel!

Comments (2)

  • On December 2, 2007 at 1:00 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    Hear, hear! What a delightful post. (I hope your baby feels better.) This blogging is fun – I already found a use elsewhere for my Wu Tsao story. I live so deep in the country, it’s rare to hear even an airplane overhead. I have no TV, no iPod, and inside and outside my house, there is usually delicious silence. This makes it easier to pay attention with all the senses. (hm, that sounds like the philosophy of something, but I swear I don’t know what.) So when I do listen to music or readings of poems, it’s like a glass of cold water when you’re thirsty. But more than that, it seems that I understand more all the time about what I’m hearing. And when I enjoy what I’m listening to, the pleasure is as palpable as a bowl of soup when you’re hungry. All of which reminds me (and may be neither here nor there) that in terms of finding inspiration for thinking or writing about poems, I often prefer reading art, architecture, and music criticism, rather than lit crit.

  • On December 2, 2007 at 1:01 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    Hear, hear! What a delightful post. (I hope your baby feels better.) This blogging is fun – I already found a use elsewhere for my Wu Tsao story. I live so deep in the country, it’s rare to hear even an airplane overhead. I have no TV, no iPod, and inside and outside my house, there is usually delicious silence. This makes it easier to pay attention with all the senses. (hm, that sounds like the philosophy of something, but I swear I don’t know what.) So when I do listen to music or readings of poems, it’s like a glass of cold water when you’re thirsty. But more than that, it seems that I understand more all the time about what I’m hearing. And when I enjoy what I’m listening to, the pleasure is as palpable as a bowl of soup when you’re hungry. All of which reminds me (and may be neither here nor there) that in terms of finding inspiration for thinking or writing about poems, I often prefer reading art, architecture, and music criticism, rather than lit crit.


Posted in Uncategorized on Sunday, December 2nd, 2007 by A.E. Stallings.