I went to the Berlin Philhamonic yesterday with a few friends to listen to An Alpine Symphony by Strauss. The orchestra was conducted by a very young (one year older than me) conductor who explained what the symphony (or rather ‘tonal poem’) was about. One can read a lot about the topic and the progress of the piece on Wikipedia, of course, but the really nice thing was that the conductor had picked parts from the work in order to explain what the composer had achieved, and where the tricks and the subtleties of the work were hidden. “An Alpine Symphony” tells the story of a one-day hiking trip on the Alps, starting with the sun rising, and then continuing with the participants setting out on their way, getting into a discussion about which road to take, going through a storm, and arriving at the summit.
As with many classical music pieces, what one would experience in her daily life as mundane was accented with powerful melodies and arrangements; what Strauss depicted as the orchestrated explosion of some hundred musicians in loud harmony was, in case you experienced something close to what he had in mind when he composed this piece, most probably a few tiring hours which you would keep in mind as fun times, but not that much of a story either. The orchestra, on the other hand, navigated from one powerful musical scenery to another, shaking the ground beneath the audience’s feet for sunrise, combining the strings in one continuous tone and shaking the air with the brass to force the audience through rain, and finally, depicting the evening light falling on the summit with the whole orchestra sustaining nearly all the colors on a rainbow.
What is this “exaggeration” good for? Why enjoy such expressions of shared experiences when they go beyond our emotional responses in such extreme ways?
For a long time, it was difficult for me to understand why people actually enjoyed hot food; there are those who cannot eat certain kinds of food without hot sauce, or some kind of hot stuff to accompany it, like hot pepper. After trying out handfuls of hot pepper myself a few times with kebab, I recognised that the main contribution of the hotness to the food was not that it strengthened the other tastes –on the contrary, it covers other tastes, being so strong and dominant– but that it brought to the fore the texture of the food, something that is rather in the background, perceived and taken seriously only after the primary distinguishing quality of food, its taste. Strong expression serves to do something similar; as it covers your memory of an experience, it helps you perceive it not through a comparison with other experiences, i.e. how good or fun a hiking trip was, but the ups and downs, the way light fell through the trees when you arrived at a certain plain, how annoying the discussion between the two guys claiming to know the shortest route, and the like. That is, the texture of your life.