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NOTHING NEW IN THE WEST


J. Mamana

There’s an old, likely apocryphal story in music. Johannes Brahms is walking with the young Gustav Mahler along the river Traun in Austria. Brahms, anticipating the 20th century, feels music is in a bad way. “Maybe it’s really over,” he says. “Maybe all great music is in the past.” So Mahler points to the river and says, “Yes, and there goes the last wave.” That’s how I heard it at least, with Mahler having the final word. There’s another version, though, in which Brahms responds Mahler. Most don’t relay his response as part of the story, probably because we’re convinced by Mahler’s analogy. Brahms’ fatalism is familiar and revolting. We know his line of thinking. Perhaps, at our worst, we entertain it ourselves; but then we get better.

The source of that river, the Traun, is in the Totes Gebirge mountain range, part of the Northern Limestone Alps in central Austria. For hundreds of years the region has offered up some of the most beautiful nature in the world, where mountain vistas meet pristine meltwater, viridescent European old-growth, and sublime glacial landforms. Recently, however, hikers returning to the region have noticed changes. Retreating glaciers. Diminished snowcaps. Increased industrial development. A group of scientists in 2017 retraced exactly a hike they took in 1992. They found dried-out forests, collapsed mountainsides. Some parts of the northern foothills, they found, may soon cease to see snow altogether.

The Traun is sourced by snowmelt from mountain caps and small glaciers. So too was the river Slims, in the Yukon, in Canada. There meltwater from the Kaskawulsh Glacier would drain into the Slims, through Kluane Lake, and into the Bering Sea. But the Kaskawulsh has receded. In 2016, the Slims dried up in just four days, and its flow was diverted to the river Alsek, which travels in the opposite direction, into the Gulf of Alaska. The Slims is but a trickle now, mostly dust and rock.

“Maybe what matters is whether the wave flows into the sea or ends up in a swamp.” That’s how Brahms responds to Mahler, in the story. Their river, the Traun, meets the Danube and flows east into the Black Sea. So Mahler’s wave was headed in the right direction. But both the Traun and the Danube are now heavily dammed, so that every wave to meet the Black Sea must also kiss concrete, hug the sides of motorboats, crossbreed with oil, waste, and synthetic chemicals. Intuitively, we still understand Mahler’s point. And he was right. But he couldn’t imagine that his river might simply dry up.

Though Nothing New in the West is not the last wave, the last wave is its subject; and aware that the first and last waves are of a piece, so too is the first wave its subject. Written and recorded in J.’s twenty-fourth year, the record is itself a wave, in Mahler’s sense, and being a wave like any other, it suggests not only the aggregate of waves—every other wave—but also the river itself as it runs, winds, climbs, carves, rushes, and sews itself into the geological fabric on its way to the ocean. It tells of the flood, of the receding, and of the drying up. As it tells, it flows; and as it flows, it inscribes. More often than not it merely recites what’s been written into the land.


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