Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra, Tondichtung für grosses Orchester, Opus 30, C Major, 1896, transcription Schmalz-Halstead

Music springs from silence. No one knows why. Maybe it is part of silence, the grinding of the rumbling gears that link the planets to the stars, the music of the spheres. Like gravity, or magnetism, it is invisible. No one understands it, and yet it links and powers all existence.

Maybe it comes from the pain of exile, as musicians do. Poets, mountaineers, and mystics are out of tune with the sink of civilization, the satanic throb of capital, the airless cave of greed, the shoving incomprehension of bullies. Nabokov writes to coat the constant gnaw of loss, the loss of all Russia, “my lost sceptre.” The gossip of the time held that Nabokov was the bastard of the Tzar. Losing his Fabergé kingdom, his vast lands, his St. Petersburg manor, his immense fortunes, Nabokov replaced them with the pale fires of art.

Mozart composes to salve his inappropriate birth into ugliness. Van Gogh paints to distract himself from the death which all visionaries anticipate. DBC Pierre writes to keep the drugs away, so he says.

When Strauss writes his initial tremolo between the two notes of a low octave (from the note of C to another, higher C), it is the silence, the soup, the dark matter, the black hole out of which space explodes.

When you hear a higher C suddenly ring out of the terror, above the pounding engines of the universe, it is man, becoming word. Word leads to words, and the tuning of he sky begins. Some people have said that this C, plus the two notes that spring from it, represents the three ages of man, the three levels of society. Gods morph into kings and finally into people, as in the philosopher Giovanni Vico’s ages of civilization: gods, heroes, and humans. Joyce’s “commodious vicus of recirculation” in Finnegans Wake, a river novel whose last sentence links again to its first in midstream, is a Möbius strip where a strip of paper is twisted and taped to itself, that simple twist causing a pencil run down one side of the strip to appear eventually on both sides, so that a one-dimensional lead point has somehow leapt through space into a second dimension to reach the other side of the plane, an absolute impossibility save for the Einsteinian twist of time and space. This “eternal return” began with Persephone, returning from Hades each year to bring the spring.

To return to the other two notes in this triptych of C, G, C:

The Yeti plays a G, which passes through the hum of the planets into space, as nature morphs into its fate, as men seek their destiny in the stars, or in a speck of dust. I always imagined that The Incredible Shrinking Man’s tears of frustration at his own condition became, as he shrank geometrically, a vast sea in which a former speck of dust  became a distant, unobtainable island, but in fact I think I dreamt the movie I wanted to see.

Here nonetheless is the ending monologue of that movie, the shrinking man suddenly understanding his similarity to an expanding universe:

“So close, the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly I knew: they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens…the universe…worlds beyond number…God’s silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of Man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon Nature. That existence begins and ends is Man’s conception, not Nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away, and in their place came…acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation – it had to mean something. And then I meant something too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something too. To God, there is no zero. I STILL EXIST!”

And the third note: a higher C. So life gestates, coagulates, collects around the primordial soup of silence into sound.

And then it all ends in tears, as the gleeful C Major chord turns instantly into a C-minor chord. Into tragedy. The nasty interlude of alien life, the funnel of the human brain. Rachmaninoff uses the quick change between major and minor as a Slavic heartbeat, the twin masks of tragedy and comedy, the yin and yang of DNA, as a brutal cry out over the void of the steppes, which at the same time rings in the absolute strangeness of that wild beauty. It is all of Russia in a dual chord, the essence and its shadow coupled, the idea and its opposite fused into an instant contradiction.

Under this plural chord are heard the thwack of drum beats. So life and its fulcrum, its launching pad and its prison, its engine and its anchor, bounce back and forth in the fog of creation, in the big bang, in the collision of elements.

And it starts again. The horns blare out the same three notes, the skeleton of the C chord: C, G, and then again C. This is Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, inspired by a pyramid of stone in the Engadine, at 6,000 feet in the high mountains of Switzerland.

In science, the eternal return is duplicated by the Cantor set, mirrors in mirrors, infinitely recursing back in smallness; by Dark Matter, weighing the universe down with worry until its infinite ways are reined in with the gravity of the situation; or in religion by reincarnation, by ever diminishing Matrushkas until the footprint of humanity vanishes into the final perfection of Nirvana.

Such comings and goings are also referenced in Nietzsche’s untergang, going down, or sunset, which is the same as Xenophon’s Anabasis, the going down, the march to the lowlands, and then back to the sea. Words come to mean their opposite, so the going down is the coming up. In my end is my beginning. Thomas Berhnard’s novel, Der Untergeher, based on his strange vision of Glenn Gould, is about someone who goes under, who goes deeper, towards death, through music, and thus coms back up again.

C to F. The world wars, T. E. Lawrence’s disillusionment with the desert he formed into a nation, the desperate human urge to annihilate itself, are temporary aberrations in an expanding, infinite galaxy, whose actual shape can only be accessed through the guesses of Buddhism or art.

And so we reach through the clouds and shadows, out of the swamp, the ghetto, upwards on the mountain, where denatured spirits expand like the fires and fissions of stars, and where some visionaries guess that our limited atoms will ultimately merge with expanding light and space, the whole and holes of which our glinting hymns are only glimpses.