Perfect Sunset, Perfect Sympony

Herman Labuschagne, 05-03-2011, Glentana


Sometimes the end of day is dressed up like a stage. The curtains are hung, the carpet is rolled out – and then – at the giving of some invisible signal – the curtains are set alight. At that moment, first the whole stage, and then the entire theatre slowly goes up into a dramatic display of flames, magic and soul-stirring wonder.


I discovered today what perfect sunsets and perfect symphonies have in common – and just how they are made. A good sunset is one that dresses up the western horizon for all the world to enjoy. But a perfect sunset is one that is built around you. It lights up the clouds on either side – and so it is with symphonies – the best of the greatest are not crowd-encompassing events. They are so big that they envelop and fill only the totality of a single mind. When you can stretch out your arms, hold back your head and turn slowly in a graceful circle – when what you see is fire all round – then you know have the perfect sunset. You do not look at a perfect sunset. You are in it. And so it is with a symphony.


Tonight the world lit up for me like that. The clouds caught fire as eerie mists themselves in long stretched-out smears and swirls. It was like a hundred mile canvas painted in brilliant oranges and reds with sky-blue and gun-grey pastels in-between – and then hung up so that the colours could flow down in long fuzzed-out streaks. Sunsets, like symphonies, have a way of building up to a climax. In both cases the wonder is rolled out in waves that come unexpectedly, sometimes slowly and provocatively, sometimes fast and with pent-up energy. All the while you know there is a grand finale in it somewhere, but the exact moment remains hidden. And sometimes it is so well hidden that you only discover it after it has already happened. The passion is built up as the lens of the sky’s curve slowly does the impossible – bending light – until it’s path becomes crooked enough to force the redness of an atmospheric smile from it.


Photographers have a world for the climactic finale of a sunset when it is at is most-developed peak. It is a beautiful word. It is called “magic moment.” And magic moment only lasts perhaps three minutes. All though the show before and after it is often majestic, magic moment itself can never be long. The best in life never are. And music is the same. If anyone wants to hear what a perfect sunset sounds like when captured in music – then where can anyone find a better example than Beethoven’s greatest of all? His last complete symphony – the 9th – the royal emperor of all the symphonies who have ever been created.


Just like a burning sky, the music also builds up. The movements vary. Several false starts, teasing, raising the expectations – and then gently letting them go again. Sub-themes develop – the show shifts from cloud bank to cloud bank – from cirrus to cumulus – and each variation builds upon the previous one. Gradually the energy mounts – the expectations become unbearable. The suspense arches and stretches the mind like the string of a bow. You wish the magic moment to dawn. But it doesn’t. Not yet. First it teases like a lover. It swirls from a thundering waterfall of light to a whisper of tiny notes – pauses in mid-flight – trembles there with fluttering agony – and then – as the maestro of the world closes his eyes, throws back his head and let’s his baton fall – it all comes down with the crescendo of a crashing waterfall. Magic moment lights up the dome of the cathedral of the world, fills it from side to side, bursts from all the windows and runs down either side. An overwhelming way to end a day.


I realized all of this as I was standing on the beach this afternoon. On a land tongue that cut into the waters, so that I was surrounded by the waves, the wind, and the immensity of the sky. A sky where dark and frowning clouds were boiling from moment to moment, always shifting pattern, always seeking to improvise. When the symphony of the sky opens, you never knew whether this one will contain the magic moment. But somehow I sensed it would. And I was waiting for it with hungry anticipation, smelling the ocean – tasting the wind, absorbing all the energy of it that has been combined into its salty emotion across hundreds of water-capped miles.


It struck me that the swell varied from time to time – sometimes breaking small and peaceful wavelets, sometimes drumming thunder as large ridges of moon-blue waters dumped themselves into the shallows around my feet. Then they would test the yellow beaches of land greedily – but always being repelled – and withdrawing smoothly – with dignity intact, stretching out a flowing carpet that reflected the burning sky and captured its mirror image back-to front. Just like a symphonic moment that builds up and then recedes where it came from. The adagio molto e cantabile of the 9th, perfectly mimicked in the dying day around me.


When I closed my eyes, I could hear it – the combination of sounds that the world scarcely ever hears because it has closed its eyes to the wonder of the universe. But with a sky aflame surrounding you, sometimes it touches the soul. It is as if some great unseen hand gently dips its finger into the waters of your soul – and for a brief moment in time, sends its entire surface rippling from shore to shore. Magic moment announces itself as unexpectedly as in a symphony. At bursts forth in an avalanche of a kind that could not have been predicted. There it drapes the sky – festoons the last blueness and pale orange of the heavens with triumphant banners for a minute or three. Around me the universe hung in suspended animation. The maestro waited. Then earth smiled and heaven blinked with stars in its eyes. It hesitated, and the, smoothly like the receding waters, bowed and started retreating from the stage of day. Magic moment. Magic music. Magic winds, heavens, earth, ocean, energy and life. With a caressing rush, the waters flowed back to where they came from. The waves rolled into one, and sky, ocean and earth combined. It was over. The day was done. Creation sighed. Peace descended with the gentleness of a whisper that could scarcely be heard.


Silent before the greatness of this wonder I stood. Overwhelmed and drained of words. How can such a moment be shared? Just as a full symphony can never be hummed to shared with another, just so a perfect sunset can never be repeated for the benefit of a friend. No painting or photograph can fully capture it. It can only be experienced. And once it has been experienced, you will try to remember it. But you can’t. Nobody can replay an entire symphony in their mind. All you’re left with is a longing to hear it again – to see the sky burning in new ways. And all you really can remember is the way it made you feel. The feeling – as the waters of your soul were rippled and then settled into perfect tranquillity.


And so there are times when you wake up late at night, rethinking what you have seen. Trying to feel the energy of what you have heard. It haunts you until, unable to bear it any longer, you rise before the breaking of day. Eagerly searching for signs of cloud formations – of eddying mists and gentle haze – the promise of a burning start to a beautiful day.


We miss most of these moments. Everyone knows that. Even when, after sleepless nights, we rise early to search for signs. But upon occasion, mostly when we least expected it, the excitement returns when we notice in the pre-dawn that it looks as if today the wonder might be back again. It is then that we rush forth to greet the waiting day with breathless anticipation. Cool wind, a slumbering world – and the faint but promising glow as another day is kindled. The curtains flicker, then catch fire. And before you know it – another symphony is born within the sky.


Is a sunrise anything like a sunset? Only the fool would ask. To those who have drunk enough from nature to have become intoxicated with its magic, the answer would be self-evident: after all, is not the perfect dawn just the perfect sunset in reverse? Indeed, this is the beauty of the magic – it is a wonder that equally works in both directions.


How does anyone sum up a perfect sunset or a perfect dawn? We couldn’t. We would need words that have not yet been invented. As well-meaning lovers stumble clumsily across mere words in an attempt to describe the deathless mystery of love, so the perfect sky can only rudely be described. But there, for all the feebleness of the attempt lie the empty shells of words. Perhaps some passing stranger will pause upon the beaches of life, to bend down and collect a few. Then hold them to the light for the pleasure of the eye and to the ear to hear the whisper of what they represent. Then perhaps, just for a moment, the stranger will close his eyes and smile. He who has seen the sky burn like fire before will know that moment. And the smile will confirm that he recognizes it, shares it, and is pleasantly reminded that life is deeper than we have ever though it could be. It is fitting that way. Life is a mystery. Light is a mystery. And when life and mystery meet, the magic of music is kindled in a symphony to the senses. Perhaps the world has been designed around moments like these. I would like to think that it was.