You may not know this about me, but music plays an outsized role in my life. I have consumed it as sustenance, medicine, and stimulant ever since I stole my first couple of tapes from my brother (Def Leppard’s Greatest Hits and Michael Jackson’s Dangerous). I am one of those annoying characters who will give you a complete, unsolicited history and analysis of that random song on the car radio until you want to jump out of the car. My favorite past time, in addition to looking for owls in my backyard, is “exploring” Sirius XM’s Bridge channel. I drive a lot, and since I abhor driving, decent speakers and multiple digital music subscriptions are what keep me sane.
When I first moved to America, I wrote a long ode to New Slang by The Shins, about how it got me through my early twenties’ angst while living and working in Karachi. In my head, I’ve written several tributes to The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I go — a song that can be safely described as the soundtrack of my life. The ghazal, a lyrical poem mostly set to music, is my favorite form of poetry, and from Faiz Ahmed Faiz to Karachi-born poet Naseer Turaabi, it is pure magic when in the hands of the right composer.
There is a theme here. Words, to no one’s surprise, matter to me. And a sublime melody armed with sublime lyrics is…well, truly sublime. To me, it is the ultimate artistic achievement. That’s one reason why classical instrumental music has not often interested me. It feels almost one-dimensional (that is my uninformed opinion). But Spiegel im Spiegel, which I discovered this year while rummaging through a stranger’s Spotify playlist, has changed everything I thought I knew about the power of music.
Spiegel im Spiegel is a 10-minute violin and piano composition created in 1978 by reclusive Estonian musician Arvo Pärt, who is famous for his minimalist style of music. “Spiegel im Spiegel” in German means “mirror in the mirror” or “mirrors in the mirror”, referring to an infinity mirror.
Despite its serene beginning notes, know this: this is not a lullaby. To me, there is nothing peaceful about this piece, no matter where and how much I play it. It may be the complete opposite of the chaos and noise that marks a lot of contemporary music, but its soft, meditative notes are anything but serene. They are packed with emotion and intense movement —except that they seep through, rather than jar the senses.
Perhaps the best analogy of what it evokes is a progression of grief after the loss of a loved one. Like going through the stages of grief — which are never linear, never in the order they are supposed to be. They just are. But the notes in Spiegel im Spiegel also carry the searing beauty of pain from loss that is constant and infinite. The song lets you to become a quiet observer to this pain, watching it as it ebbs and flows like waves as time applies balm to memory, yet always reverberating in a corner of the heart as long as the heart beats. It is profoundly uncomfortable yet profoundly beautiful.
And like everything of great beauty, Spiegel im Spiegel may break your heart, but it is a risk well-worth it.