Archive | September, 2013

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The Haunting:

Posted on 23 September 2013 by Hao Li (Meds 2016)

The image chosen for this essay is a black-and-white reproduction of Arnold Böcklin’s 1880-1886 painting Isle of the Dead. Böcklin was a Romantic Symbolist painter whose works often portrayed the grotesque and the fantastical, and the Isle of the Dead was an epitome of such style. This painting was the source of inspiration for Sergei Rachmaninoff’s (1873-1843) tone poem Isle of the Dead, scored for the symphony orchestra. In 1907, the Russian composer had the opportunity to view the black-and-white version of Böcklin’s painting, and immediately the music came to him. Perhaps the deathly atmosphere of the art paralleled his own tendency to write music of a dissonant and haunting nature. As much as we would like to speculate, not even the composer himself understood how he was so readily inspired: “When it came, how it began—how can I say? It came up within me, was entertained, written down.”

Rachmaninoff began working on the composition in January 1909 and finished it in April of the same year. The music does not offer many clear melodies, and serves more to paint a mood than as a lyrical composition.

The piece begins in a hushed manner, portraying a boat quietly rowing across the River Styx on its way to the Underworld. Its softness is deceiving, hiding the interplay of instrumental parts which is actually immensely complex. An unbearable eeriness is created by the low register of the orchestra, making these few measures feel like an eternity as we are held in suspense, expecting something horrifying to appear. We also notice that the piece makes use of an irregular rhythm, consisting of five beats in each measure which produces a gently swinging sensation as the boat rows. These five beats are divided into groups of twos and threes, and it is not always predictable which grouping will occur next, adding to the mysteriousness of the mood. At the same time the music exhibits a sense of sadness and regret, as if the passenger is in a deep state of lamentation. What exactly happened in his life? How did he die?

Even at this point we hear fragments of the Dies Irae, an invocation from the Mass for the Dead. It is introduced by the bass clarinet, and will be picked up by other instruments as the piece progresses. It haunts us, constantly reminding us that we are in the world not of the living, but of the dead. The intensity of the sound gradually builds up as we approach the island. As the island comes into view, sadness turns to hope as the passenger knows that he will finally rest in peace. But the suspense is not over. The music continues to gain power, slowly and steadily, until we arrive at last on the shores of the Underworld to the roar of a terrifying climax.

But to the passenger, this is not terror, but ecstasy! The orchestra rejoices with him jubilantly as he steps onto his eternal resting place. Now that he has been dropped off, the music returns to our perspective. What a demonic place! What horror! A searing lightning bolt along with an ear-splitting thunder rush toward us. The Dies Irae, the symbol of death, becomes more audible and more pressing. We can endure no longer. We desperately want to leave the island.

So we leave. And as we breathe our sighs of relief, the music once again becomes quiet. The boat rows away from the isle of the dead to the sound of the opening of the piece, which returns to let us know that we will eventually have to row back to the island. Indeed, the nature of the closing is that of a timeless, never-ending cycle. The next passenger is waiting for us on the other side of the river…


Isle of the Dead, Op. 29

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At the brink

Posted on 23 September 2013 by Jimmy Yan (Meds 2015)

In a few short hours, clerkship will have started for me. I realize that this past week was the official start of 3rd year, but as it was largely an instructional week about some of the “how-tos” regarding clerk duties (“how to access powerchart”, “how to do a sign off”, “how to dictate”…) – a clerkship bootcamp – it really did not register with me.

Now, I cannot stop pondering over what tomorrow, the next week, and the upcoming year is going to bring. What will call be like? How different is this going to be from the past two years? How long will I be able to keep biking to my shifts? How difficult are the end of rotation exams going to be?

Ultimately my mind circles back to one question: “am I ready?”

Honestly, I want to tell myself yes. Reason it out – that hundreds, if not thousands, of students have been on this path before me and have been just fine. Normalize the process in order to soothe it over, get a hold on the anxiety, and move forward.

Yet the question returns, like a demented boomerang. It ceases to just go away. Each time it reappears it brings a friend: another question, a hypothetical situation, a hidden doubt.

Somtimes, I welcome these thoughts, as in the past, I’ve relied on the fear and worry to motivate me onward. But the stakes seem higher now, and especially with the fact that I’ll be working with real people who are sick, I don’t want to be the one needing to make mistakes in order to do it right.

If getting through medical school is a journey, I liken it to one across a mountain path. The first two years are along hilly trails: winding around, rising steady, rough at times, but generally you can see the route and it’s something you’ve been on before. Clerkship then rises out of that like a sudden and steep peak, and I now stand at its brink. Personally I haven’t experienced this yet, but I’m assured that my skills and knowledge should be adequate for the ascent. With it looming over me, I cannot be sure.

It doesn’t help that I’ve always had a fear of heights as well.

I guess in the end, I’ve made it this far, there’s nothing else to do but climb.

See you all at the next plateau.

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