Thursday, August 16, 2007

A limbic ecstasy

Tim Page has an extremely interesting piece in this week's New Yorker on life with Asperger's. The two things that induct him, so to speak, into a fuller human life are Emily Post's "Etiquette" and a radio broadcast of the prelude to "Das Rheingold":
The word that year was "psychedelic," and I had no idea what it meant, although I had gleaned that "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," Peter Max posters, certain novels by Hermann Hesse, and the whole city of San Francisco were awash in this new and magical quality. And then Wagner's depiction of the River Rhine started to play and a flowering drone filled my head; time was suspended, and I was transformed.

Much has been made of Wagner's harmonic restlessness--of the way that a work such as "Tristan und Isolde" led inexorably to the so-called "atonality" of Arnold Schoenberg and his myriad disciples. But what astonished me in "Das Rheingold," although I couldn't have stated it then, was the opposite quality: the opera's unprecedented harmonic stasis, the manner in which it explored the churning inner life of sustained chords, from the three amazing minutes of E-Flat Major that set the score in motion through the affirmation of the Gods, Valhalla, and the eternal D-Flat Major at the end.

This was music that one could dwell in, a sort of sonic weather. I loved its resistance to change, its protracted unfolding, its mantric sense of perpetual return. A large part of my career has been devoted to writing about music, and I date my first more or less mature criticism to the world premiere of another composition that shared some of these same qualities, Steve Reich's "Music For 18 Musicians," which I heard in New York, at the Town Hall, in April of 1976.


Today, I find myself wondering if I would have responded so profoundly to this starkly reiterative, rigidily patterned music had I not had Asperger's syndrome. This is not an aesthetic cop-out: I can make an intellectual case for minimalism, and I am hardly the only writer who has done so. But its initial appeal for me was purely visceral. As the Quakers might say, this music spoke to my condition. (I would later experience a similar, curiously mechanical limbic ecstasy upon a first encounter with "Last Year at Marienbad.")

1 comment:

  1. Here's a link to an NPR interview with Page on All Things Considered about the article and his experience with Aspergers: