Mahler and Acousmatic Sound

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When Debussy heard the 2nd Symphony of Mahler in 1910, he walked out of the concert hall. Later when he was talking about Mahler symphonies, Debussy used the words “submarine” and “whip” trying to describe the sounds he heard. Not everyone was as straightforward about their feelings like Debussy but he was definitely not the only one to criticize Mahler’s sound world.

When Mahler premiered his first symphony critics tried to describe it as “opera without act”. They were in need of explaining the sounds they were hearing in a context and the “effects” they were hearing reminded them operas. Those sounds could only make sense with visual support, otherwise it was just uncomfortable.

In this article I will try to label the categories of uncomfortable sounds in Maher’s symphonies while explaining his sound world. The sound categories I found in Mahler’s symphonies are natural noise, urban noise, distant sounds and acousmatic sounds.

After explaining the sound world of Mahler, I will explain why the 20th century audience tried to understand the music with an image, by comparing their era to today’s technology where we don’t necessarily have the obligation to explain all of the sounds we hear with an image.

Uncomfortable Sounds

Mahler’s audience wasn’t prepared for what they heard in the premiere of his 1st Symphony in 1889. It was criticized as being hard to follow, having too many quotations and having too many “effects” that they were not used to hearing in anything else but operas. Mahler was indeed an opera conductor so he might have gotten the idea of an extended sound world from what he conducted but he never wrote one. On the contrary, later in his symphonies he explained the idea of being absolute and only having the music’s itself as a reference point in his compositions. For him, each symphony was a sound world in its own and that was the only reason he was naming his compositions as symphonies.

Even though the premiere of his 1st Symphony in Budapest wasn’t a total success, Mahler kept writing and building an audience which made him one of the most remembered composers of his era if not the most. He did use programmatic explanations when presenting them to the audience, especially his first four symphonies, the Wunderhorn Symphonies. But then he gave up on programmatic explanations by simply claiming they are leading the audience’s mind too much, more than he ever wanted. Mahler wanted his music to be kept abstract and absolute. Therefore, the “effects” he had didn’t need the use of words to understand. The audience was free to understand anything they wanted. But because they weren’t used to this idea they kept trying to explain the sounds with a story or image.

Categorıes Of Uncomfortable Sounds

Mahler was always fascinated with the daily sounds he heard and was always open to them. Peattie puts the words quite aptly, “Mahler makes no distinction between the sounds of ‘nature’ and what he refers to as the noise created by human”. But in music history the idea of sound wasn’t yet quite inclusive enough at Mahler’s time. Therefore, the critiques started using the word “effect”. Because his music was making them imagine a scene, -either an opera or any other fictional sight- the listeners were assuming that these unusual sounds were written in order to support his programmatic idea. But Mahler didn’t necessarily put his sound world together in order to describe an image. For him, the meaning of a symphony was a sound world.

Noıse In Nature

Mahler’s opinion about the noise in nature evolved into a very interesting direction in years. Here I define the noise as an “unwanted sound”. But that will evolve as well. In the summer of 1892 Mahler was wishing to be able to turn-off the sounds he hears any time he can. Natalie Bauer-Lechner recalls the memory as;

“Mahler who suffers so much from noise and disturbance even in the country, tells me that when he was a child he used to wish that the good Lord had equipped human beings in such a way that, the minute they got too noisy, something like an internal ‘Jack-in-the-box’ would pop out and, belabouring them vigorously, reduce them to silence. ‘I am certain’ he says, in this connection ‘that in some future age the human race will be as sensitive to noise as it is now to smells, and that there will be the heaviest possible penalties and public measures to forbid offences to the hearing.”

One can observe an improvement by the time it gets to 1896. That summer in Steinbach am Attersee Mahler is not so much “up to his ears, not engrossed in it as if possessed by a divine madness.” In 1897 in Ridnau , Natalie Bauer-Lechner feels compassion for him in a way mentioning “and he has to listen to them (referring the natural sounds) whether he wants to or not”. During July of 1900 Mahler was still very disturbed about the environmental barbarity he hears while trying to compose;

“Even in his little house, which gives him the greatest pleasure, there are many days when he is disturbed. The birds torment him with their singing, in spite of scarecrows and firing of blank cartridges. You can hear the barking of Theuer’s dogs. Sometimes the sound of a barrel-organ, or a military band on the opposite side of the lake, wafts over. The guests at the local hotel sent a band of Bohemian musicians to serenade him for an hour at their expense. He is all the more exposed to such crude attacks as the people know what elaborate arrangements he has made to ensure his undisturbed peace. This they find extraordinary, in fact crazy; and so they make him the target of their wit.”

Yet, one can observe a big difference in Mahler’s opinions during the same year in August, which is only a month later. The famous story about Mahler’s understanding of polyphony, explains his fascination with different sounds coming together at the same time from different directions and because of this I think it’s worth quoting the whole memory;“Mahler told us at table that, on the woodland path to Klagenfurt with W. he was much disturbed by a barrel-organ, whose noise seemed not to bother W. in the least. ‘But when a second one began to play, W. expressed horror at the caterwauling – which now, however, was beginning to amuse me. And when, into the bargain, a military band struck up in the distance, he covered up his ears, protesting vigorously – whereas I was listening with such delight that I wouldn’t move from the spot.’ When Rosé expressed surprise at this, Mahler said, ‘If you like my symphonies, you must like that too!’

The following Sunday, we went on the same walk with Mahler. At the fête on the Kreuzberg, an even worse witches’ Sabbath was in progress. Not only were innumerable barrel-organs blaring out from merry-go-rounds, swings, shooting-galleries and puppet shows, but a military band and a men’s choral society had established themselves there as well. All these groups, in the same forest clearing, were creating an incredible musical pandemonium without paying the slightest attention to each other. Mahler exclaimed: ‘You hear? That’s polyphony, and that’s where I get it from! Even when I was quite a small child, in the woods at Iglau, this sort of thing used to move me strangely, and impressed itself upon me. For it’s all the same whether heard in a din like this or in the singing of thousands of birds; in the howling of the storm, the lapping of the waves, or the crackling of the fire. Just in this way – from quite different directions – must the themes appear; and they must be just as different from each other in rhythm and melodic character (everything else is merely many-voiced writing, homophony in disguise). The only difference is that the artist orders and unites them all into one concordant and harmonious whole.”

(Bauer-Lechner, Natalie, and Peter Franklin. Recollections of Gustav Mahler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980. p.155)

This is very interesting because one can clearly see a change about his opinions on noise.  A month ago Mahler was disturbed by barrel-organs and dog barking, a month later he’s fascinated about different noises coming from various locations, loudly. One might assume when he’s trying to write music in peace, he does not want any sound but is still interested in sounds. But this last memory in this context of Natalie Bauer-Lechner from the Summer of 1901 will help in clarifying the scene;

“Mahler is much less disturbed by the birds in his little woodland retreat than last year (when fledglings in a subsequently discovered nest under his roof seem to have made an atrocious din). He is actually on friendly terms with them. Recently he told me quite delightedly about a bird which, set off by the melismas of his music, sang so gloriously that he was happy to listen to it, telling himself that the bird was doing better at it than he!

On another occasion, he called the birds the first composers. Listening to them again on a walk, he said to me: ‘Even as a child I was struck by birdsong. I noted how it would begin with conscious singing and a definite rhythm and melody, but then would turn into inaccurate twittering – like a four-footed animal standing on two legs for a moment, but immediately falling back on all fours again.”

Clearly, Mahler’s opinions about natural noise changed in time. During this period, 1899-1900 to be exact, Mahler was working on his Fourth Symphony. It is not a surprise that the thoughts he’s having are already being processed in his Fourth Symphony as sleigh bells and scordatura violin. Sleigh bells at that period were being used on horses to make noise in order to keep their presence loud so that the pedestrians would be aware of them passing by. Therefore, it was a sound from nature, yet it was a loud and ugly one. Furthermore, it was psychologically referring to danger. Mahler is the first composer using sleigh bells in an orchestral score. Raymond Knapp is referring the sleigh bells in the score as; “This sound is not beautiful, indeed is not artistically beautiful, but rather artistically foreign, it is the extreme opposite of art”

It was not the only time Mahler used a disturbing sound from nature of course. Later on his symphonies both disturbing and distorted sounds were being used as a compositional technique. Cowbell and hammer sounds in the Sixth Symphony are still considered as the most extended soundscapes of the 20th Century. Julian Johnson describes how artificial the Naturlaut idea actually is in an orchestral music;

“Mahler uses his performers to attempt a realistic imitation tinkling bells of distant Alpine herds, while at the same time denying any programmatic intention. What seems like realism is, more accurately, merely deconstructive. By means of its distance from the tones of art music, the cowbell stands for what remains unappropriated; the idea of ‘otherness’ is thus embodied by a sound from beyond the hitherto autonomous aesthetic universe of instrumental music. By importing ‘real nature’ into the symphony orchestra, Mahler exposes the artificiality of the conventional pastoral.”

Urban Sounds

Mahler was living in different big cities during his career, but Vienna was one of the biggest cities of its time. Therefore it was inevitable to not hear any noise in daily life. Inevitable especially with the knowledge that Mahler was a good walker.

One of Mahler’s daily routines was walking. In fact, most of the collections of reminiscences about Mahler we have at this time occured during his walking routines. Mahler was thinking, listening and talking during his walking time with his accompanists such as Natalie Bauer-Lechner and his wife Alma. Furthermore,  Stuart Feder suggests that most of the time during his walking tours with Natalie Bauer-Lechner were spent on friendly psychotherapy.

Mahler’s walking path was not only in nature during the summer but was also in urban cities like Ringstrasse during the winter. Hans Heinrich Eggbrecht reports what disturbing sounds he heard in Mahler’s symphonies:

“Mahler walks through the city, in the evening, at night, and takes in all the music he can hear: happy violins, quivering mandolins, guitar and the clarinet, the voices of all the other instruments. Schrammel music, strummed pianos – and then he walks on , happy, filled with beauty. Tjere are other sounds, melodies and strains from the left and from the right. There is also the Opera house, music from the Volkstheater, and at the end the coffee-houses close, the music fades, the lights go out, night falls.”

This particular thought on Mahler’s sounds was commented on his Seventh Symphony’s Nachtmusik II. As an addition, Peattie defends that this is nothing but an aural mapping of the city at night:

“And by introducing the figure of the flâneur, a figure who in this movement traverses a specific Klangrum (sound space), the metaphor of walking imposes a narrative on a movement that has so often been heard as a succession of fragmentary tableaux.”

Distant Sounds

Mahler is not the first person who used space in orchestral music. In fact, it was a fairly common technique in the opera world, which is where he might have gotten the idea from. For instance, Mahler conducts Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde many times in his conducting career which uses distant sounds, and this is only one of the examples in the opera world.

The first occurrence of distance in Mahler’s music was in his first large scale work, Das Klagende Lied, a song cycle. In this piece, Mahler composes music for an off-stage orchestra additional to an onstage one, which is an unexpected spatial dislocation in an orchestral score. However, just like Wagner operas, this usage of an off-stage band is written in order to support the programmatic idea. But ,as opposed to Wagner, Mahler does not juxtaposes the on-stage orchestra and off-stage band, he combines them.

“Without the band, passage evokes Triston und Isolde… But the combination of two different streams of music is also evocative of the fanfares of Act II of Lohegrin, which cut across the orchestra’s chromatic F sharp minor with the purest D major. Whereas Wagner juxtaposes elements, Mahler combines them and accentuates the contrast by placing orchestra and band in different meters.”

This earliest usage of multi-directional sound by Mahler didn’t occur in the first version of Das Klagende Lied. However, in the first version Mahler expressed imagined distance in the score. He eventually added a physical distance to the published score adding the off-stage orchestra but this “imagined distance” idea is used in his Third Symphony.

Mahler’s Third Symphony was written almost 8 years later than Das Klagende Lied but, the “imagined distance” idea he created in his earliest large work was saved until his Third. Symphony’s first movement indicates 4 different distance markings;

  • wie aus der ferne (as if from a far distance)
  • immer wie aus wieter Ferne (always as if from a far distance)
  • wie aus wietster Ferne (as if from the farthest distance)
  • wieder Alles aus weitester Ferne sich nähernd (everything again as if from the farthest distance, coming nearer)    

The movement has a march theme. However, during the movement the march theme starts as a vague concept. Consequently, hearing the beginning of the march will differ from listener to listener depending on where they were when they first became aware of the march. Peattie supports that, this argument is indeed an evidence to Mahler’s idea of imagined distance:

“Grenee’s reading – while deeply intertwined with his phenomenological account of this work – allows us to make sense of the temporal component that is so central to Mahler’s conception of imagined distance. Indeed, if we can agree that the march comes into being through the framework of an imagined procession, this ultimately shows the extent to which the idea of imagined distance plays an important role in the movement’s formal process.”

The necessary instructions are indeed very comprehensively given by Mahler so that the march should gradually come closer.

And according to Adorno, the movement only will be meaningful if the composer’s formal idea is followed, only then it will be clear enough for the listener’s ears.

“If the first movement achieves true sonata exposition, this is not simply, as the rhythm suggests, a long march; rather, the section proceeds as if the musical subject were marching with a band playing all kinds of marches one after another. The formal impulse is the idea of a spatially moving source of music. Like much recent music, the movement, in its inner structure has a shifting, not a fixed, frame of reference. Yet the result is not an impressionistic, timelessly spatialized interpenetration of sounds as in Debussy’s Feux d’artifice with the July 14 fanfare; instead, the juxtaposed fragments of marches create, through their exact proportions, articulated history”.

One last piece of evidence can help us understand what Mahler was thinking creating this movement:

“It all tumbles forward madly in the first movement, like the gales from the south that have been sweeping over us here recently. It rushes upon us in a march tempo that carries all before it; nearer and nearer, louder and louder, swelling like an avalanche, until you are overwhelmed by the great roaring and rejoicing of it all”.

Acousmatic Sounds

Mahler is clearly thinking about the concept of sound inside the music he’s creating. And what is uncomfortable to the listeners is that, the sound world that Mahler’s presenting wasn’t matching with the one they were used to. A listener of his symphonies would be lost in form and left with sounds only. Therefore, they got confused and even angry perhaps in the beginning, knowing nothing about how to listen.  The listening discipline was very formal and had limited information in terms of emotions. What Mahler created in his symphonies is enlarged the scale of emotions in symphonic world, bringing more grey than only black and white.

It wasn’t a coincidence that Mahler’s idea of natural noise changed in time, but after the famous polyphony story. He was indeed always very open to spatial sound and called it “polyphony” but perhaps it was only after hearing it in nature he became aware of the disturbing sounds are part of our world and can be used in music. Furthermore, perhaps it was the “polyphony” who influenced him to listen to an uncomfortable sound which he ended up using as an emotion in symphonies.  Maybe that’s why he started to add urban sounds to his works.

It is not certain how Mahler started to listen to the uncomfortable sounds around him but we can clearly hear these three categories in his works. But our ears in 2016 are not same ears of the 20th century. The main difference is that we can capture and manipulate the sound and image. So what is uncomfortable to us, was not only very uncomfortable but also alien to them.

Today, when we hear a sound we don’t have the obligation of imagining the source of the sound. With recording and mixing technology we are now free of combining sound and image in our brains. But it is such a new technology that since only about 100 years ago, in order to hear music listeners had to go to a concert. Furthermore, not only listening to music, hearing a sound was obligated with an image. If a person in 20th century was hearing a sound, then there had to be a source somewhere near. Audio and visual were a pair.

In a concert hall in the 20th Century, a listener was expecting a limited group of sound. A sound from an orchestra included a limited loudness, limited timbre, limited quotation, limited imitation. Now I must define limits here for this article. Limits doesn’t mean possibility, it means common practice and expectation. A listener who came to a symphonic concert most probably wasn’t expecting to hear a submarine sound. Now here it gets interesting. Was that really a submarine sound Debussy heard? How could Debussy know what a submarine sounds like? What does a submarine sound like in 20th Century? Or is Debussy imagining a picture with a sound he hears that is alien because that’s how he listens the music, because that was the listening discipline of his time?

Sounds that one hears without seeing what causes it defined as “acousmatic” by Michael Chion. This uncommon word was theorized in ancient Greek and was taken up again by Pierre Schaffer and Jérome Peignot. According to Chion, there are three aspects to consider in terms of acousmatic:

“Chion’s Schefferian account of acousmatic can be summarized under three headings: technology, the division of the sensorium, and reduced listening. The acousmatic experience is encountered in certain forms of ancient and modern technology (Pythagorean veil, architectural screen, tape recorder, loudspeaker, etc.) that divide hearing from the rest of the sensorium. This division encourages reduces listening – a way of attending aesthetically to sounds as such, apart from their worldly causes. The purpose of the acousmatic experience in the Schaefferian tradition is, as Chion says, to “change the way we hear,” to draw attention away from the source of the sound (whether visually present or not) and onto its intrinsic audible properties. The source of the sound is severed from its audible effects, so that the latter can be studied separately, placed into morphological categories or systematically integrated into musical compositions. The separation of the senses is purposive, a way of discarding the sonic source in order to orient attention toward aesthetically appreciated sonic effects alone.”

In order to understand the listening discipline in history one must carefully understand Chion’s aspects of acousmatic, especially the theory of reduced listening.

“Chion claims that reduced listening is facilitated when the source of the sound is unseen or hidden, what he calls “indirect listening”. However, reduced listening can also take place, albeit with more difficulty, in a “situation where sound sources are present and visible,” called “direct listening.” What is the relationship between reduced listening and the acousmatic experience (or “indirect listening”)?”

According to this information one can estimate what type of listening practice was common in 20th Century concert halls. A concert experience can be a direct listening; when the audience is listening to a violin solo and following the form, timbre, dynamics etc. of music. It can also be a reduced listening; when the audience is hearing the orchestra but not listening to a certain instrument (1 violin player for example) hearing a general timbre, background, middle ground and foreground of music. And finally, indirect listening or acousmatic experience; this one was harder to achieve before the recording technology but not impossible.

The audience is hearing a sound but the cause isn’t there. Now we can compare it to today’s earphones. We do know where the sound comes from when listening to an MP3 track from our iPhones, but we also do know that this is only a recorded sound, the real source isn’t in our ears. In terms of acoustic music such as Mahler’s symphonies, when we hear an urban sound or an uncomfortable natural sound or even a physical or imagined distance, we know that this is only caused by the orchestra, we aren’t moving, or our ears are not broken.

Furthermore, we know that the nature sounds or urban sounds aren’t actually there, they are only interpreted by an orchestra. And finally, we at this time, we don’t even think that we should imagine an object if we hear an uncomfortable sound. Over time, while technology was evolving, our ears evolved as well.

The idea of an “uncomfortable sound” is not uncomfortable at all in this era. Therefore, what “alien” was in the 20th Century, is normal now. In other words, the “submarine” is not a magical new thing anymore. We now know the submarine sound, or many other sounds that were unknown a century ago.

Today we are defining new and unfamiliar sounds as “alien.” Mahler was revolutionary in terms of writing new sounds into music but his compositions was named alien because his timbre was not yet familiar enough to be listened and understood by majority immediately.

Today, after a century we finally hear Mahler’s music almost in every season but it took many years and ears to appreciate his approach of expression. I wonder how many other composers we eliminated in this path to get where we are.


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