Mirror in the mirror

19. Spiegel im Spiegel – Arvo Part                                                                                          2011

More than any other record in this list I would urge you, before you read any further, to take ten minutes out and just listen to this one. Quite aside what it means to me and the associations it has it is a sublimely beautiful piece. If you’ve never heard it then it’s worth hearing “clean” before  anything I might have to say about it becomes part of your association to it.

Back ? Good. It’s quite something isn’t it ?

My usual start point in approaching any of these posts is to try to learn a little more about the record in question, mostly by listening to it but also by reading about it. Sometimes the latter exercise throws some new light on the music for me but often it’s just checking things I’d always assumed as fact: Abba getting divorced, Al Kooper sitting in on “Like A Rolling Stone” by accident, the difficult gestation of The Wall. I’m not sure what those facts add. I’m not sure that they particularly tell me, or you, anything about my relationship with the record. Not really. They tell you I can find my way around Wikipedia, probably know a little bit of this stuff anyway after *cough* roughly thirty years of listening to music, but beyond that ?

There have been pieces that have gotten closer to the spirit of what I’ve been trying to do I guess. The posts that reflect my love for my wife and family, that’s closer. The poetry. The thinly disguised fiction. All closer. All harder for me to do and all somewhat clumsily executed. But closer I think. I’m always simultaneously most satisfied and most disappointed with those ones  – satisfied that I tried and that it rings emotionally true, disappointed that it’s not better written. The other stuff is enjoyable (to me) but I’m less sure what it’s for – the Dylan piece, for example, is okay but the bulk of it, despite its early protestations to the contrary, is trying to do a Greil Marcus-esque job and there’s really no need; he’s pretty good at doing that job already. The more personal bit, the section about “having no secrets to conceal” flirts with something emotionally true to me and then gets cold feet, backs away.

The reality is that there is no “big” secret to conceal. The truth is that I suffer from – or suffer with might be more accurate – depression. Some days it’s bad. Some days, most days fortunately, I don’t really feel it at all. I’ve had long stretches of years in my life without a murmur. Then, in the last couple of years, I’ve had stretches when it’s gotten on top of me, been in danger of being swallowed by the rising tide.

Not every song in this list is about depression (“thank god” – entire rest of reading world*) but this one, for me, is. It’s the one that let me admit to myself what the problem was and start to get some help.

So, back to my usual approach, if we research “Spiegel im Spiegel” then we get something like this (it’s from Wikipedia – as I know absolutely nothing about classical music then I’m prepared to trust it as a reliable guide…):

Spiegel im Spiegel is a piece of music written by Arvo Part in 1978 just prior to his departure from Estonia. The piece is in the tintinnabular style of composition, wherein a melodic voice, operating over diatonic scales, and tintinnabular voice, operating within a triad on the tonic, accompany each other. It is about ten minutes long.

Okay. I got the bit about Estonia. 1978. Ten minutes long. That stuff in the middle might as well have been in Estonian for all I was able to understand it and, do you know what, even if I possessed the technical knowledge to decipher the sentence it still would have told me precisely nothing about my involvement with that piece of music. But that’s what I do, I try to understand stuff – try to take the songs apart to see what makes them work – rather than just sometimes experience it. In microcosm it’s what I do in life, I’m not happy unless I can rationalise something – solve it by understanding it – and sometimes there isn’t a rationale. Sometimes you just have to experience it, let yourself feel it, and wait for it to pass.

I don’t even remember how I found this piece of music. Poking around the web now there seems to be some concern that it’s almost become too ubiquitous, if something can be too ubiquitous. Is it one of those absolutes like unique ? Whatever, it was a surprise to me that it’s well known enough to even provoke a debate. It’s an odd thing to just find though, almost ten minutes of minimalist classical music – it’s not even as if any of the various algorithm sites I sometimes use would have thrown it up as a “people who liked… also liked…” recommendation. Let’s accept it as a gift and call it fate.

My memory of hearing it, whilst not a happy one, is crystal clear. I was lying on the sofa at home. I was spending a lot of time doing that, dimly aware that all was not entirely well. There had been an unprecedented run of what you might call bad luck or you might just figure was how life plays out sometimes; losing a job, struggling a bit with loss of status in a new one, reconstructing my knee (again), some unexpected and particularly unpleasant surgery, and discovering that I’d managed to displace my jaw joint. Away from my house you would never have known. Maybe that was part of the problem, trying to tackle it all myself for fear of letting anyone know that I was struggling. My wife knew of course and I will be forever sorry for the burden that it placed on her.

The circumstantial stuff wasn’t the real issue though. Each element on its own wasn’t ideal but was manageable. Even all of them together might have been okay if I’d not been pre-disposed to mental health problems. Am I pre-disposed ? Is anyone ? Maybe that’s the wrong phrasing. I’ve certainly suffered at various times in my life with mental health problems and this set of challenges pushed me further and further back into myself until I thought I couldn’t get out.

And then I heard this. Whilst that sounds a bit like it’s come straight from the “and with a single bound he was free” school of deus ex machina it genuinely was like that. I lay on the sofa listening to this and it was like someone had thrown me down a torch into the dark pit that I’d taken up residence in – the torch lasted long enough for me to see where I was and realise I was in trouble and probably wasn’t going to get out on my own. It enabled me to see myself very clearly. I don’t know if it’s the repetition or the tempo or just the still tranquility in this piece of music but whatever it is it just allowed me enough space and distance to understand.

Part moved from Estonia and spent much of his life in Berlin. I never studied German and know next to nothing of the language. Until I started this post in my usual researching fashion it didn’t even occur to me to translate the title: it means “mirror in the mirror”. Imagining two mirrors, endlessly reflecting themselves, disappearing into infinity in their planes, is absolutely the essence of how “Spiegel im Spiegel” works for me. For me it’s profoundly moving and desperately sad but also meditative and extraordinarily beautiful.

So it might seem a little strange to be so forthcoming now but there is method in my madness. After a while it’s just tiring carrying around the lie that everything’s always okay. Not allowing the bad stuff expression becomes part of the problem. It’s not about sympathy but I guess it is about empathy. It’s also an acknowledgement that lots of people either have or will experience something like this in their life and I guess this is my small attempt to let them know that I can empathise with that and that things can get better. Don’t try to do it on your own though. People will surprise you (in a good way). Find a doctor, find a therapist, find your family and friends, and they will help you find yourself.


* based on current stats “entire rest of reading world” actually means about 4 or 5 people a day. Surely one will go viral one day ? What’s that you say ? Less depression, more videos about cats. Ah, now I see where this is going wrong…

Look ! A cat:



2 thoughts on “Mirror in the mirror

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