Monday, January 16, 2012

Mahler with Marimba

I have been transfixed by the recent event at the Avery Fisher Hall. This was the story that came out last Friday about conductor Alan Gilbert stopping the New York Philharmonic dead in its tracks at the mercy of an intrusive and never-ending marimba ring tone.

The marimba in its modern form came to America at about the same time that Mahler was writing his 9th symphony - in 1910. Although the instrument has been used in later classical pieces by other composers, it is not believed that Mahler had any knowledge or interest in the instrument popular in Central America and on Caribbean cruise ships.

That the ring tone erupted for a few moments was bad enough, but from varying reports, it lasted an agonizingly long 5 - 10 minutes.  It seemed insidiously programmed not to misbehave during a loud section, but at the moment when the music is fading almost into silence.  

As you can see from from this score of the 4th movement, there aren't many notes.  The sound disintegrates and you could hear a pin drop if not for the equivalent of Daffy Duck making his entrance.  We all know the ditty - Da, da, da, da, da!  Da, da, da, da, da! Da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da!

This was hijacking of the highest order - interruption of art. Just imagine some 2,700 people and musicians transfixed by the ethereal and sublime music of Mahler's 9th Symphony. Along comes the insistent, obnoxious, and uninvited instrument. Captain Gilbert endured the massacre as long as he could stand it, then stopped the engines and everyone waited.  And waited while the marimba made merry. That so many were held hostage by this banality is true theatre of the absurd.  These gentle appearing patrons soon had murderous thoughts, but apart from angry shouts and rhythmic clapping, why didn't anybody DO anything? Music is an experience when we voluntarily suspend our belief for a period of time with a start and a finish. The magical moment was destroyed. 

No, this is not a mallet for striking a marimba, but Mahler's baton.  He had a very successful conducting career before dying at the age of 50. And yes, the curse of dying after composing 9 symphonies held true. Good thing he didn't have to hear this altered performance.

On January 10, 2012, civilization as we know it was brought to its knees by the power of technology. 

Thus sprak Malus Domestica - a tone poem

Enter the iPhone, disguised here as the monolith in 2001 Space Odyssey.  Little did we know that we would become helpless victims to the Hal that played annoying ring tones.  This is the one glaring mistake that Steve Jobs didn't address in his obsessive quest to design the best.

I object to the inanity of most of the ring tones offered on Blackberry and iPhone. Please do everyone a favor and be sure that yours is one that isn't irritating.  And learn how to turn off the damn thing.  You may have to customize it and pay a few bucks plus be sure to ask your friends if the ring tone you choose is offensive.  Otherwise, listen up cell phones designers, don't insult us with your meager, mediocre menus to select from when we've just shelled out a lot of loot.

So, the psychological repercussions of all this percussion will echo for some time...will Patron X ever be able to use an iPhone again without experiencing trauma?  Or ever listen to Mahler again?  Will he be expelled forever from Avery Fisher Hall?  Will he have to keep this a deep, dark secret forever from friends and family?  Patron X, and we, unfortunately, will never be able to forget.  I think it would be in the best interests of iPhone to delete that tone entirely and let there be silence!                                        


  1. the ringtone went on for 10 minutes? seriously? i'm surprised the audience didn't mutiny — the offending dolt should have been kicked out on his behind!

    amen renee, could not have been said any better.

  2. I've heard reports now that it was as long as a half hour; it was set on alarm and would go off and on. I agree, a mutiny was in order to show Mr. Marimba who was in charge! I say reclaim our airwaves and where is the stockade when we need one?