A week ago Sunday I found myself infatuated by a spectacular performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, affectionately know as the Symphony of a Thousand, given it’s massive vocal choral score for a thousand or more more voices with orchestra(s), pipe organ, and other exotic instruments.  This performance included the combined Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simon Bolivar National Orchestras under Gustavo Dudamel beamed live from Caracas.  The chorus comprised the combined school choirs from throughout Venezuela, all part of La Sistema, Venezuela’s universal program for music education. (Truly universal,  every child, no exceptions.  There was a very moving video of hearing impaired kids performing with non-impaired kids–the hearing impaired following the rhythmic patterns they could apprehend via choreographed movement of the their white gloved hands.)

Many have called the finale of the 8th the most beautiful piece of music ever composed.  Not an overstatement in my book.  The grandeur balanced against a sprinkling of minor and diminished chord structures creates almost an indescribable, sacred beyond words experience.   As I came away from the performance, it seemed that perhaps there was a strong connection between this wordless mystery of the musical beauty and the wordless mystery of deep meditative experience.  The music kept resonating.  At home, I sat in mediation for almost an hour with this experience.

Strangely, something felt superficial.  I just noted that odd feeling state, sensing that there was more to be revealed.

Still captivated by the 8th, I googled the symphony to learn more.  I was surprised that Mahler himself did not consider it one of his best works.  “A lot of noise”, in his words.  Something seemed to click as I read that.  How much of my experience was a projection of my conditioning?  A strong preference for the romantic, love of strong external symbolism,  longing for the perfect expression.  What lay beyond all this monkey mind activity?  Thoughts, after all, are not just words—images, sounds, sensations—all can be manufactured by a conditioned, egoic mind.

Which took me back many years to the opening performance at Louise Davies Hall (home of the San Francisco Philharmonic).  Carlo Maria Giulini selected the Mahler 9th for this occasion.  I remember vividly being deeply moved, but for entirely difference reasons compared to my experience with the 8th.  I You Tubed the signature Leonard Bernstein conducted performance of the 9th with the Vienna Philharmonic, moving to the finale.  I found how incredibly different the approach was to bringing the essence of the sacred to life in music.  For the 9th, there is no chorus or other fireworks.  Rather a steady whittling of the experience down to the barest of bare notes, punctuated with extended silences, until even bare notes were gone.  There was nothing left to be borrowed by mind from the music, all that was left was the vast empty space of direct experience.  Preference-less, concept-less, fantasy-less.   If the 8th was a demonstration of inexpressible joy in redemption from death (Faust’s via Goethe’s classic drama of the same name), the 9th was a deconstruction of the romantic fantasy of escaping death–or life for that matter.

As practice advances, choiceless awareness of the space around emotions, thoughts, and mind itself becomes more apparent.  Monkey mind has a big ego, and is known to masquerade himself as evolved beyond his old, unawakened ways.  Clever little guy sees an opening via music.  “Hey,” he pipes up.  “Music is beyond rational mind.  It’s a direct path to awakening beyond mind.  Watch this great show of that insight by taking a bath in the glorious waves of sound from the 8th (or whatever your favorite musical elixir might be).”  Now I get the Mahler comment.  Glorious noise, sure.  Beyond words, sure.  But still borrowing at the bank of emotional ego.  What’s left when the loan is paid back?  Choiceless awareness the 9th would answer.

May all beings be happy.

May all beings be safe.

May all beings be at peace.

What’s your experience?  Here’s Bernstein (arguably conducting the most authentic and satisfying Mahler performances of the 20th century) offering the 8th and 9th finales.

The 8th:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4zScwFBMTs

The 9th:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07fu_iZwDNM

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