Home Masthead From Cavafy and Mahler to Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden

From Cavafy and Mahler to Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden


Skies-Kamau-poem-JDGAs the poem unfolds with rhythmic intensity so does the stultifying scene of decadence at the centre this highly developed civilization. We meet the emperor, sitting at the city gates in all his finery, waiting to receive the barbarians… so do the consuls and the praetors, dressed in scarlet togas… wearing “bracelets with so many amethysts…rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds”… waiting to receive the barbarians… The orators are silent… no speeches are to be made as the barbarians are bored of rhetoric…

Then, as night falls people become restless and confused. The streets and the squares empty rapidly. And everyone goes home lost in thought… because the barbarians have not come. Some, who returned from the border, announced that there are no barbarians any longer… the poet asks:

“And now, what’s going to happen to us without the barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution”

So what, you may ask, is the point of recalling this poem? Why now… why in an editorial about music?

Skies Human RightsFirst of all poetry and music are plucked from the same string, struck on the same skin. The rhythm and meter of both music and poetry emerges triumphantly from the same wellspring – and has done so since time immemorial. From the psalms and ancient monastic chants to the work of Langston Hughes and Kamau Brathwaite… and the work of Abbey Lincoln and Charles Mingus.

Second — and most significantly — the artist exists not in an abstract, elevated state, but in a very relationship to his or her ethos. Their work holds up a mirror to society… civilization and culture. And so their work or opuses may be looked upon a history of a people. Cavafy’s poem reflects a society on a downward spiral, as does this Mahler’s, Mingus’, and Ornette Coleman’s… The fact that there is continuity here, chronologically speaking must count for something. Perhaps it is the fact that the artist is the first to spot the advent of his/her decaying civilization. Or perhaps it is the fact that only the artist will ever admit to the decay itself!

Skies-MahlerBetween 1908 and 1909, Gustav Mahler composed his “9th Symphony in D Minor”. This is one of Mahler’s most intense works. It has been recorded that around the time, Mahler became aware that his wife was being unfaithful to him. He sought solace in music. The “9th Symphony” was a result of this sojourn. Its last movement — a stirring contemplation of death and eternal life — bears a striking similarity to the hymn, ‘Abide With Me’ and also quotes from Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” (piano sonata 26 – opus 81a). Its effect on audiences and other artists was profound: Most however concerned themselves with the work in isolation. For instance, Otto Klemperer believed it to be his greatest achievement and Herbert von Karajan called it, “Music… from eternity”. Leonard Bernstein, “It is terrifying, and paralysing, as the strands of sound disintegrate… in ceasing, we lose it all, but in letting go, we have gained everything.”


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