I was not ready for the 8th when it first came to me. In the world of music, some songs are meant to be blasted from a car stereo on a warm July night, when you are 19 years old and have nothing better to do than drive around Columbus late into the night with your two best friends, one in the front seat, one stuffed into to the tiny back seat. Here I am in my red Firebird, and this is my music, and you will hear it and know me. Some music must be heard live to be understood, heard with a small room of devotees or an arena full of fans, but heard together with others who are likewise passionate, and in that moment united. Here is our music, and we are one. Some music means nothing until you are part of it, performing it, standing on a stage with over 100 others, singing in Latin as loud as possible, rivalling the timpani and the brass sounding the Judgement day, “tuba mirum spargens sonem…” Here is our music, and our voices and instruments are one. Some music is meant to evoke a feeling or a mood—to make you dance, or perhaps to clear your mind for meditation—but is not in itself be deep in meaning. Here are beats, and sounds, and movement.
An essay in five movements
First movement: Adagio
The Shostakovich 8th Symphony in C minor is none of these things, and so it kept its confidences until played in the correct manner.
I needed to listen to it alone. On headphones. To let it permeate my brain. And I did not understand what it was, and where it was leading, until I did.
My research method is simple. 1) Read a book, or an article. Possibly completely by accident. Learn a thing. 2) My God. This thing is amazing/fascinating/disturbing. I am not sated! I must learn more! I must know! Invoke the Google Fu! Read all the books! 3) Oh look, here is an interesting aspect of The Thing that is worthy of research in its own right…more Google! More books! It is not in the least bit linear. I know this. It was the single biggest obstacle to completing a straightforward, linear doctoral thesis.
Almost all of my passions have some place on a great Tree of Knowledge somewhere. My love of hockey arose from the Miracle on Ice in 1980. I adopted the Detroit Red Wings as my team in the early 90s once I had regular access to viewing hockey games; I still remember what sealed it—footage of Sergei Fedorov scoring a dazzling end-to-end goal in one of his early seasons. Being a Detroit fan meant I began following the team online through Detroit newspapers—and I began to learn about the city. And in one of the papers, I read an article on the work of Camilo José Vergara, and bought his book American Ruins. Vergara is a photographer of urban ruins, particularly the decaying architecture of what is often termed the “inner cities.” Blight. Decline. These are part of a larger narrative of the evolution of American cities, the “hollowing out” that occurred in the latter half of the 20th century, often driven by the construction of highways, the decline of manufacturing industries, and race-related issues. Detroit famously was hugely impacted by all of these. Growing up, Detroit was a scary place for a suburban white girl to even contemplate. Seeing the burned-out buildings and the boarded-up storefronts during a trip there in 1985 only served to emphasize this to me even more. Now, I stopped being afraid of Detroit and started learning its full story. I found the Fabulous Ruins of Detroit website and spent hours upon hours wandering virtually through the abandoned mansions of Brush Park, the empty skyscraper hulks in what Vergara called the American Acropolis of ruins, touring crumbling hotels that now played host to birds, rats, and the occasional squatter.
Ruins were not new to me; no classicist escapes them; no romantic can fail to be moved by them. But the concept of modern ruins was new, and became a source of fascination, both those caused by unintentional neglect or disaster and those caused by intentional destruction. But as I focused in on single buildings, I also exploded my view to see cities as a whole—not just buildings, but people. We think of ruins as architectural constructs, but they would just be crumbling buildings without the story of the people who first built them, who lived in them, and then abandoned them. Ties break down or are broken, sometimes by acts of nature, sometimes by acts of humanity or inhumanity. What once was solid dissolves, sometimes slowly, other times abruptly.
But in the midst of every ruin is the evidence of persistence. Surviving a period of ruin forever marks a building. It marks a city, and it marks a person, and none are ever the same after. Sometimes what rises in the ruins is a pale echo of what went before, an attempt to reclaim glory now lost by replicating its outward forms. Sometimes, when the centre collapses, life surges—or creeps–back inward from the margins where it never died at all. Sometimes it is a new thing altogether. Whether proudly worn or hidden, the scars are there over the broken that has healed.
There is sadness in a ruin, and much that is bleak, but there is a joy. A ruin says “I have not yet been forgotten. I may yet be again. There is a choice still.”
Ruins are quiet places, places that demand thought from the thoughtful, where each element is meaningful, deserves its own attention, tells part of the story.
I came to the 8th through the 7th, and I came to the 7th through Leningrad, which I came to because, under siege and starvation, it was frozen in history in the moment of ruination. It was a dormant branch on the Tree of Knowledge, an old one, awakening after a long slumber, to say “you knew me once, as a child, and you have filed me away. Here is my music; listen and understand.” And I did, the music broadcast from speakers on the ninth of August, 1942, music meant to be played loudly, amidst the guns, as a weapon itself, indeed, across the lines to a besieging army. The Shostakovich 7th Symphony does not invite introspection; it begs to be played loudly. It demands to be heard. It nearly collapses at the end from pure exhaustion, but it has persisted. And silence. And then, thunder.
The 8th is not that. The 8th, to me, is the embodiment of ruin. It looks inward, at the broken places, fragments of the past sticking out like jagged edges. It makes onlookers uncomfortable. “Shouldn’t you be over your grief by now?” It eventually draws completely inward, dark, numb, before it can find resolution, and even then there is no shout of victory—just a quiet hope, born of persistence, cognizant of where it has come from and the yet-tender scars.
I have found my way back here after eight years. I do not exaggerate: I arrived an hour ago. This place was abandoned, almost passed from memory altogether. But here are my words. “I have not yet been forgotten. I may yet be again. There is a choice still.”
Second movement: Allegretto