Kenneth Woods wrote a marvelous post on certain passages in Gustav Mahler that don’t seem to “advance the plot”, giving some listeners the idea that Mahler may have needed an editor. Woods’ chief example is the march music (ca. six minutes long) that separates the two songs that make up “Der Abschied” (The Farewell), the last movement of Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth).

In purely musical terms, we are in the same place at the end of this march as at the beginning. It starts in a minor then quickly moves to c minor, which in Mahler’s style isn’t a distant movement. When the march has ended and the second part of the movement begins, we get the same low, soft tam-tam note we got at the beginning of the movement. We haven’t gone anywhere! But, as Woods points out so eloquently, “some profound transformations have occurred. We feel changed by what we have experienced. If I could articulate what that change is, we wouldn’t need Mahler.”

Woods discusses this kind of discursive music as just one of Mahler’s many narrative strategies, but it put me in mind of a very different kind of music, one that uses this transformative discursion/stasis as its very essence.

As an undergraduate I fell under the spell of what was then the very new and quickly developing world of minimalism. My first exposure to contemporary classical music had been the experimental music of composers like Stockhausen, Cage, and Lucas Foss (I heard his For 24 Winds at a concert in the summer of 1971 and was immediately hooked on the soundworld of the piece, which I haven’t heard since). A few years later I heard the famous first recording of Terry Riley’s In C and was immediately hooked. I loved the way it sounded and the way it moved, or didn’t move. It’s a soundworld thoroughly imagined, realized, and inhabited, and what more can we want from music?

I soon got my ears on all the minimalism I could find, which was quite a bit, and was most taken with Steve Reich, in particular his music up through Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ. This music embodies the Mahlerian discursions Woods writes so tellingly about, with its delicate balance between process (the setting in motion of ideas and allowing them to play out) and discovery (the in-performance highlighting of the “resulting patterns” that occur as the phasing and other processes play out).

At the end of such pieces (as at the end of the march in “Der Abschied”) we find we haven’y gone anywhere in the strictest musical sense, but we have been moved and changed.


  1. Sorry for the delayed comment here, Steve, I've been AWOL from a lot of things the past few months. Thanks for your musings here. The connection in temporal terms between Mahler (especially late Mahler) and minimalism is one I've been tracking for years. It would take far too long to make the full point here, but the piece you point to, Der Abschied, is actually a kind of study in futility, or at least that's what I'm currently arguing in my long-delayed doctoral thesis.

    The piece hardly ever moves harmonically, always circling back toward C in some form, and rarely, if ever, makes use of functional voice leading, standing as it does over a series of pedals. The funeral march itself doesn't really modulate, it just falls, or perhaps collapses, into C minor at its end. The use of the funeral march genre, combined with Mahler's increasingly grotesque, exaggerated orchestration and the lack of harmonic progress point, in my opinion, to a commentary on the futility of striving, and of the human tendency to self-mourn. In a very real sense, we get nowhere because we're held back by attachment, nostalgia, regret, self-pity, etc. The coda of Der Abschied is a lateral step out of that cycle of self-mourning (or mourning of the Self), a journey into the unknown where all harmonies become a kind of singularity, dissonance and consonance merge, rhythm dissolves, the notion of "going somewhere" is left behind in favor of an eternal "here and now". And that "now", left largely undisturbed after Mahler, is the gap minimalism stepped in to fill.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Matthew. The whole area of how music deals with the passage of time is fascinating.