After short-sleeve days in January and news of the expanding crack in the Larson ice shelf, the arrival of official spring seemed a formality left over from an era when expecting a year to leaf out much as the year before wasn’t unreasonable. WQXR’s spring-themed playlist offered a twenty-four hour reminder of the day we were all in. A curious absence in iOS and iCal, to mark April Fools and the start of Daylight Saving and not the seasons. But there we were. FBI Director James Comey was before Congress confirming investigation into the possibility of Trump campaign collusion with Russia. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch was in Senate confirmation hearings that Merrick Garland was denied. I was grateful to hear Schumann’s Spring Symphony zoom off to the races, George Szell’s nearly sixty-year-old recording making a clear case for rigor and a sense of through line. Sibelius’s “Spring Song” had made its gradual ascent. I remember, on first hearing the Sibelius a few years ago, that it seemed familiar from movies I could no longer name, their soundtracks, in retrospect, imitative or as innocent as I’d been of harmonic math converging on common figures:
The turns at 2:45 and 3:08, the brass and timpani concavities at 4:15, the concluding vernal heights stir a hymnal lift wherever I hear them, no matter the weather. They’re chromatically precise, free of image, open; sound translated into color and space experienced as reverberation time.
Pop, rock, hip-hop, folk, for me more often paint by the rules of conventional cinema. The instrumental interludes of Saint Etienne’s “Spring” descend between verses and I’m in a London street where I’ve never been. It owes less to the lyrics or album cover than to a sense of contiguous space remembered ahead across avenues in the Village and the little triangle parks where cross-cut side streets skew off into the blue of late afternoon. I didn’t listen to “Spring” in the Village until after seeing the Village in the song. Being on location didn’t reinforce the point. “It’s only springtime/Oh, you’re too young to be through with love,” Sarah Cracknell’s character sings. The line break neatly elides the logic she travels from sentiment to sentiment, understanding present and metaphorical spring by comparing them to springs past, springs imagined. I went running in the 2000s listening to a 1990s imagining of a 1960s style, and I imagined the low-rent 1970s and Internet-a-go-go 1990s that neither the song’s narrator nor a narrator in the era the song aspired to would have had pictures of; slideshows of years that should have been a lark. More immediately springy than Sibelius’s spring, Saint Etienne’s “Spring” is more out of season than Sibelius in October and December, and I’m glad to stop in it.
Pop songs that don’t summon something of the era they were recorded in or seem to want to be set in usually get stuck to where I was when they struck me. I hear Jefferson Airplane cry out that it’s no secret on a supermarket sound system and I’m in a coffee house with its door open to a side street. Traffic breezes from the near end of the block. A theatre producer seated behind me is on a long phone call. His rehearsals have had a rocky start. Does the person who phoned him know of any photographers? He finishes his coffee and is gone before I turn to see him. I never decode from his side of the conversation what show is opening soon, nine summers ago.
Almost no orchestral works have picked up such specific associations for me. I don’t know why. Compositions’ complexity eluding my half-tutored listening; human voices’ presence or absence; album covers’ hues and scenes; no aspect or combination is as consistent as the result.
Apart from Gershwin’s glissandos through Jazz Age New York and Paris, of orchestral music only Brahms’s Third Symphony carries me into realistic scenes. The Second is towering midday, his Fourth nightfall, but I hear them in the light of the day I’m in. The Third always plays from the afternoon half of the nineteenth century. Most often I’m listening on a run. If I start out on my most frequent route at the first movement’s opening F–A♭–F in a performance that takes the exposition repeat, and if I keep a good pace with no wait to cross main roads, as the second movement ebbs I reach a favorite stretching-out spot. Two streets in close parallel, one busy, one still except for neighborhood traffic, are crossed by a third. From a curb on the side street, I can see thoroughfare comings and goings that my stretching doesn’t interrupt and isn’t interrupted by. I position my shadow in the trunk shadows of not yet leafed out trees, or in the deep of summer shadows. The third movement begins, “Poco allegetto.” Cellos play the main theme through.
Violins repeat the theme at a yearning pitch. An oboe brings it down. I’m stretching into an intersection in Saratoga Springs where I stretched out years before I ran listening to Brahms. The town is out of racing season. No cars pass for minutes in either direction. Someone in an apron comes out from the café on the corner and shakes crumbs from a towel. A French horn takes the theme into rumination, and I feel an absurd calm of accomplishment in noticing that in Saratoga Springs off-season I can hear the next street over as I heard a next street years before in Paris, lost and late to meet friends, thinking how I would prefer to stop in the park I was cutting through, more a square than a park, than to rush on to where I was going.
I’ve returned in Google Street View to the corner in Saratoga and to the arrondissement I rushed through, squares I might have crossed. They don’t resemble what I recall, or the intersection where this year I listen to Brahms, except that in each there’s quiet to stand in with a view to a thoroughfare. I can’t distinguish whether in Saratoga an intersection recalled me to a Paris square where I hadn’t stopped, or if I see each through the other for the first time through the view I have now. I can’t distinguish whether Brahms prompted me to them because their urban quiet, the pleasant rustle of hurry a street or two over, fits the third movement’s theme or if what fits the theme is that I haven’t returned, haven’t been able or chosen to return. The scenes remain, as they always were going to be, uncomplicated by subsequent connections.
Several times now I’ve chanced into the third movement at the same cross street. I caught myself planning to meet it, fondly regarding the reminiscence ahead, and decided to forestall that. No intentional repeats. No repeats until I forget to prevent them, and stand in the unexpected past, in sound I thought I knew.
Photo: Sarah Malone