Mahler in the Desert

I share with my husband his passion for water and boats and for the passed few months we have lived at his sailboat. Steve is a marine biologist, so it makes sense that he likes to live close to the ocean. As for me, I am a musician, more specifically, a classical singer and pianist but also a bit of a wanderer. I moved to the United States from the Netherlands, where I was born and raised, and it has only been a few weeks since Steve and I tied the knot among bougainvillea’s and with a view of “the Star of India”. This nineteenth century schooner traveled around the world, just like the two of us, but now, all three of us are moored at San Diego bay. It is late 2001 and recent events have put the country in turmoil. Due to visa-issues we have decided to move to Baja California, the narrow peninsula that ties the United States to Mexico and I remember how feelings of exile were never too far away.

As we were in no hurry and without a plan for the next couple of months, we took our time in reaching Baja California’s most southern tip, some thousand miles away from the border. For weeks we were enclosed by the peninsulas myriad variety of abundant vegetation and one by one its numerous unknown inhabitants presented themselves. Like boojum- and elephant trees and giant cardones in which owls had made their homes. I saw graceful eagles soaring through the sky and hawks diving to catch their prey. Dark vultures circled ominously in the sky, never returning home unsatisfied and stirring up those feelings only known to the ones from afar and at loss within. As much as I like broadening my horizons and adding new adventures, there is a moment in which the unknown becomes too overwhelming. There is a moment in which the unknown provokes such unbearable loneliness that you would give anything if only a familiar person, sign or gesture. It was at those moments that I would squint my eyes and pretend being back where things looked familiar so I could shake this feeling of not knowing who I was and where. In the strangeness of the desert I became a stranger to myself and that was both liberating and frightening. Frightening because of the irrelevance of past and future, and having to surrender to only presence. Liberating because as a stranger you can be whomever you want or decide to be courageous enough and just be you.

One night we camped out near Catavina, halfway down the peninsula, and after leaving Highway 1 the deafening sound of a washboard road urged us to silence as we paved our way through shrouds of dust. Suddenly, like a mirage, and out of another era, an old Mexican cowboy on his horse appeared, but by the time I turned around, the dust had swallowed him up thus leaving me behind, wondering whether it had even taken place. In this surreal state of mind we arrived at “El Marmol”, which once functioned as an onyx mine, but long since had been abandoned. The only thing we encountered was a roofless, onyx schoolhouse with some of its walls missing, and big chunks of onyx laid scattered around the deserted building. In the twilight the onyx lit up and its balmy, earthly shades, as though filtered through an ochre lens, invited us to come stay at this enchanted place. As darkness settled in, the sky filled up with stars and in the moonless night they shone their lights brighter than I had ever seen before. It was to the crackling sound of a wood fire that I sunk into oblivion and in a void of nothingness that I drifted back to childhood landscapes. To where buttercups and dandelions covered the fields and also cow parsley and poppies, even clover and cuckooflowers. I was back to where everything was within biking distance and my piano, my dear friend, never too far away. I don’t know for how long my slumber lasted but when waking up melancholy and homesickness made me turn to the only source I know to be of any help. Music provides landscapes, unmatchable to the soil and is the only cure in times where all familiarity is swept away and feels forever lost. The landscapes evoked by music are formed in my mind and body by what I once touched, felt, saw, sensed or heard. They remind me of the unimportance of material things and transport me to a beautiful place within. A place where no matter what will happen, I can always count on it to be there for my retreat. As different sounds trigger different places and different places trigger different sounds, I close my eyes until my mind selects. …

…On the wings of legato cello’s and to the beat of pizzicato strings it is as if I am floating to a quiet place where the world has stopped turning and time no longer exists. There, the world embraces me without ever being oppressive, and I feel wide open and vulnerable, with all my life juices flowing in the right direction. It is there my heart bursts for joy, and grief, is in pain and in love, all at once. When the pizzicatos fall into silence I feel at loss and I am so relieved when they make their re-appearance, deciding to come back and guide me. If only I could stay here forever! Traces of Mahler’s “ Songs on the Death of Children” flash by and bring back some drama of passed times. A lonesome violin cries her duet with a French horn, but not even they are capable of spilling my moment of bliss. I am certain that nobody has ever visited a more enchanting place, where the rhythms of heart and music have merged and where music and I have become one…

Gustav Mahler’s “Peaceful, poco adagio” did not only evoke internal landscapes but also carried me back to my childhood days and first encounter with mountains which I then, was convinced were drawn at the horizon. Being a child raised in the lowlands, I had never seen mountains before. It brought me back to the country where I had spent so many happy holidays. Mahler’s music evoked summer landscapes although there had been so many more winters I spent in his country of birth. The more I got drawn into the music the more memories of long forgotten days came to mind. Like wildflowers in all colors of the rainbow, and farmers harvesting hay, securing their cattle’s food for the long winter months to come. I remember friendly brooks filled with crystal clear water from further up regions, now ready to smelt. Cows with giant copper bells dangling around their necks echoed me back to memories of freshly churned milk and bread rolls delivered in white cotton bags. Dark wooden farmhouses with neatly chopped and stacked timbre, and in every bedroom a down duvet covered with bright white sheets resembling clouds I loved to dive into. I could go on…

That particular night my mind selected Mahler, and I desperately needed for Steve and I to understand each other because after the music stopped, everything still looked foreign, even more so than before. I very much needed to get rid of the loneliness that spread inside me like an oil spill. The way oil separates from water that’s how I can best describe the way I feel when loneliness sets in. One feels separated more and more, not only from others, but especially from oneself. I decided to put my husband, who’s focus in marine biology kept him away from classical music and to whom Mahler’s music is yet to be revealed, to the test. I wanted to see if he, as a non-musician, would pick up the same imagery as I had. Music speaks a universal language, capable of passing on messages on a much deeper level than any other language I know. It speaks to you as a voice straight from the heart with no boundaries, no self-censorship to keep it from being heard, and it certainly doesn’t need skilled ears to be appreciated. Skills might even be of hindrance since at those moments where head and heart meet, we often loose touch with what we feel. Silently I was hoping Steve would be able to look straight into my soul and take a glance at the landscape I had just created inside of me. Was I asking for too much? When it comes to music, Steve and I are worlds apart. Where only classical music touched my ears, he listened to bands like Rolling Stones, Naked Barbies, The Tubes and the Beatles. Also to the famous, so he told me, Jethro Tull, whose name he had to spell over and over again.

Under a sky scattered with stars I remember being spectator to Mahler transporting Steve to a magical place, where sounds would rule his mood. It looked like he had lost himself in thoughts, which to me made perfect sense, since internal landscapes aren’t designed for too much brain activity. Sometimes I thought he had fallen asleep, but then, Steve is a master of silence, a man of few words. When he speaks he often leaves everyone baffled with his pointed remarks. “What landscape do you associate with Mahler?”, I asked him when he finally put down his headphones. After taking a few moments to ponder my question, who could have guessed, certainly not me, nothing could have prepared me for his answer: … “The desert”. For what seemed an eternity all I could do was stare.

The desert? Was he joking? Meanwhile, my brain, working overtime, frantically tried to comprehend. No matter how hard I pondered it, I failed to understand how anybody could ever come up with the desert as being a landscape associated with Mahler. “Are you sure?”, I asked him: “Are you really sure the desert is what you associate with the music you just listened to?”. “Yes”, he said, “that is what I imagine when listening to Mahler”. “Why?”, I wanted to know. “Well”, he said: “It sounds peaceful and quiet.” “Yes, but there are many more landscapes that evoke peace and quietness. Why did you select the desert?”, I asked him. “ Well, I picked the desert, ‘cause that is where I am and I feel very peaceful and quiet”.

“How could he associate this dry and arid land, a land that Mahler probably never encountered, with this music?” “How could he name this landscape that looked nothing like Austria, Mahler’s country of birth.” The more I tried to understand the more I despaired, for on this night I had so much wanted for Steve and I to understand each other. I felt he failed me. He, so I had always thought, was one of the very few capable of looking straight into my soul but now turned out being incapable of seeing what to me was so clear. Disappointed as I was, I felt myself retreating to my own little world, the one I had lived in for so many years, but had left since Steve entered my life. That world had not been an ugly one, it was just that I did not want to go back there anymore. I was done living there all by myself. This was a time in my life I wanted to share with Steve, although music may not have been too much a part of it. That night, far away from anything familiar, I had turned to music in the hope it would re-connect not only me to myself, but us to each other. What I hadn’t expected was that re-connection to myself would imply re-connecting to loneliness, to the very theme I had tried to escape. By speaking my fears out loud to Steve, so I was hoping, they would subside and no longer come to haunt me. When he failed to read my world, my mind, he not only handed me back ghosts to haunt me, but ghosts that had transformed into monsters.

Why he had named the desert I failed to understand. However, what I did understand was that I couldn’t give up. Not yet. There had to be a way to build a bridge between the two of us, so to get rid of the wedge that was keeping us apart. What came to mind was this: “Could it be that Steve, as a non-musician, was far more capable of making unbiased and open-minded connections and that as a trained musician I had lost that same capacity?” If this was true then I had just fallen into the trap of rigidity that comes with any profession, since training does not only form but also deform. Once trained there is no turning back to the innocence of before. “What had I missed?” Maybe in order to understand Steve I had to try and leave my musicianship and all the things I had learned behind. After all, facts and skills are irrelevant when it comes to true understanding of the other person. Words perhaps are unimportant and superfluous, since we might not always use the same ones, even though the underlying meaning may be the same. I had reached a level where I needed to understand with my heart as opposed to understanding with only my brain, which was what I had failed to see and was why I had not understood Steve’s “desert”. “What emotion does the desert stir up in you?”, I asked him. “It makes me feel peaceful and quiet”, he said. “Yes, I know, you mentioned that before, but why?” I pressed, now needing to get to the bottom of it as I continued asking him: “Where else do you feel peaceful and quiet?” “At home!” he said. “Where is home?”, I asked and I really wondered what he was going to say. I for sure did not know where that was anymore. “Phoenix”, he responded: “where I grew up”… Once again, the only remaining thing for me to do was stare!

For the first time ever I realized how different our childhood landscapes were from one another. I grew up where it always rains and sunlight is something you often crave for. Steve grew up in a climate that averages three hundred sunny days a year, with water always being precious and in demand. Where I had grown up between forests and fields, he grew up surrounded by orange groves with trees so laden with fruit that giant orange fights seemed in place. I grew up in a farmland area with cows, pigs and horses, and where people chose dogs and cats as their pets. Not so for Steve who grew up amidst animals I had only heard of though never seen, or others I did not even know they existed. There are endless stories about “Missy”, the coatamundi, who is a desert relative of the raccoon (so Steve told me, not realizing that even a raccoon sounded like an exotic animal to me). His mother bought this little animal from the local zoo and ever since I entered Steve’s family I have heard stories about “Missy”, the shrewd little animal who always managed to escape its cage and wreak havoc on the neighborhood. Where I grew up we had a dog named “Bobo” that equally terrorized the neighborhood by attacking every dog that entered his territory, but somehow Steve’s stories sounded much more exciting. Just tell me who do you know had a coatamundi as a pet?
So I had to talk about loneliness and not knowing where you belong. About the urge to connect without knowing to whom nor how. About knowledge and its tendency to create distance not only from others but worse, from oneself. About “home” and wondering where that might be and then realizing that all this time the question should not have been “where” but “what is”. It took music to remind me that there is no such thing as a single answer to a question and it took Mahler to point out to me that what seems to be contrary may very well be the same. Music, once again, showed me that words seldom capture what the heart is trying to say. On this journey of self-reflection I realized how much music has become my true language and how at loss I feel if nobody understands. Not the fact that I am far away and at unfamiliar grounds provokes feelings of nostalgia but a lack of understanding for the words I speak and the recognition for who I am. Disconnection and loneliness are one and the same and connecting to someone you love and respect, including yourself, can truly give you wings to fly.