Friday, September 14, 2007

Adagio for Strings

Just a little riff on the power of music.

Back in 1988, I was driving through the golden hills of the California Coastal Range in a 1975 Super Beetle convertible with the top down, headed from my house in central California down to the beach to spend the day in Carmel and Monterey. We were listening to classical music on a public station when they played Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings in G-minor. Waves of associational sadness poured over me. The music is sad enough in it's own right--quite honestly, the saddest music I know. But there was something more behind what I felt. I knew that the music had been used as soundtrack for some heartbreaking film I had seen in the previous few years.

I racked my brain to the coast and back. I bought a recording of the piece, and then racked my brain for a couple more years, seriously. Mentally, I ran through every tear-jerking movie I could think of from recent history, but I knew that none of those I could bring to mind were the movie that had so laden Barber's most famous composition for me.

Then, in 1991, I was studying for my comprehensive exams and writing my M.A. thesis at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. From my eight floor study carrel in the library, I had a view, out a narrow slit of a window, of the soccer practice fields, about a quarter to a third of a mile away. As I was watching out that window one afternoon, a lone figure ran across the field, headed away from me. The angle, the distance, the lone figure in retreat, created a pattern that brought to mind another such scene, this one from a movie.

A group of soldiers raids a village, a single villager has slipped out and is running away, crossing a bridge in the valley below, at about the same distance, angle, and speed as in the scene before me. A sergeant takes three shots with an M-16. A puff of dust rises from the villager's back as he falls. I can see the image, this image before me, that image in the movie, and in my head I can hear the violins that have haunted me for more than two years.

As I race down the stairs--eight stories of them--the movie continues in my head. Straw huts burn as the violins crescendo. In another scene, a lone soldier falls to his knees with his arms raised above his head as helicopters depart and his friends see him fall and the enemy advance on his body and through it all there is Barber. I run across the pit to the undergraduate library where the video collection is housed, retrieve the VHS tape, and hurry it into a machine in the nearest carrel. From beginning to end, from the moment Charlie Sheen walks down the ramp of a C-130 "in country" until he is airlifted out of the shards of an overrun base, there is one soundtrack that permeates Oliver Stone's Platoon. That soundtrack is Adagio for Strings. And finally, I have an answer to why hearing it is such a cathartic experience for me.

I saw Platoon on its opening night in Montgomery, Alabama. Six of us went together from the Squadron Officer's School at Maxwell Air Force Base. The only place where there were six seats together was the front row. When I saw the movie again, months later with my fiance, from somewhere in the middle of the theater, it was a completely different experience. From the front row, when a firefight began, the tracers flew from one side of the screen to the other, and you wanted an entrenching tool to dig your own foxhole. I've never liked the front row in a theater, but I had to admit, being there made Platoon the most intense movie I had seen since Deer Hunter, and seared into my mind its soundtrack, as the essence of sadness itself.