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Listening to Mahler

Blog post
Published: 02.03.2010

Tonight Matilda is curled up on a chair, ostensibly sleeping off her dinner (chicken liver — a favourite).  But her ears twitch. I am listening to a broadcast of Mahler’s 8th Symphony. She hears it, too. She likes music. When I play the piano she sits beside me. Occasionally she jumps up to lend a paw.

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The universal sweep of the music, performed by over a thousand soloists, choristers, instrumentalists, which so felicitously combines word and sound, voice and instrument (and voice as instrument) draws me to muse on the breadth and depth of human endeavour represented by music, as one of the earliest forms of expression and communication, considered by some to be more fundamental than language. From there, for some reason (fiddling with my rings, perhaps) I reflect on the human chronicle that is, and is represented by, jewellery. This leads me (like Matilda, I’m curious) to wonder about the relationship between music as organised sound-in-the-world and jewellery as object, as thing-in-the-world.
Where they converge.
Where diverge.

Each note, sung or played, with its unique pitch, duration, volume, and especially timbre, might tally with a particular jewel. Investigating this, could I concoct a theory of convergence?
So many notes. So many jewels. (And my studio beckons!)
True, timbre is usually applied to (musical) sound. But surely each item of jewellery has its own resonance, its plangency, its sonority, and each reverberates with the resonance of its histories, both distant and recent.

If a musical note could be transformed into a jewel, how would it sound?
What would a sonorous note on the cello weigh around the neck?
What is the colour and transparency of a plangent note on the oboe?
Is silver the voice of a soprano?
What is the shape and sound of silence?

convergence? confluence? nonsense?

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Mahler wrote his eighth symphony between June 21 and August 18, 1906. In performance, it occupies between 70 and 90 minutes, depending on the conductor. As with all monumental (or even minor) works, its genesis would have been earlier than the commencement of the writing itself, and once the last sound fades from our ears it remains in the mind.  But essentially, it is finished. It exists only as memory, and as potential, until next heard.

So duration is one aspect of divergence.

Jewels are (or have the potential to be) constantly present, to move with us in time as well as in space. The presence of a jewel is palpable. It can be more readily (and literally) grasped. It can be held, retained, kept, confirmed. Jewel by jewel the history has been building since the sign of the first scratch — the significant scar — was admired; since the first shell was selected and strung on hair cord. Each item in the panoptic catalogue can be inspected from every angle:  measured, weighed, assayed, “valued”, encouraging us to ascertain its temperament, its timbre, enabling us to consider which aspects it might represent of the entire gamut of human life. (More than a lifetime undertaking)

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As the Symphony comes to its emotionally charged conclusion, I remain, however briefly, in a place where I would not otherwise have been.

I feel the rings on my fingers. I return to myself.

Matilda’s ears no longer twitch. She awakes. Stretches. Yawns. Jumps up to be petted.

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About the author

Margaret West is an artist who sometimes makes jewellery; she writes: mostly poetry essays. She has exhibited widely in Australia overseas. She lives in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales, Australia.

About this blog

Touching the thingness of words the wordness of things.