Writings about Music

Mahler Divining Jethro Tull

Jethro Tull

Reading Mahler Remembered by Norman Lebrecht, a paragraph by Alfred Roller, a painter and set designer who worked with the innovative Austrian composer, caught my eye, conjuring the unforgettable image of Ian Anderson playing the flute with Jethro Tull.

"I have seen him sometimes standing motionless in the middle of a room, poised on one leg, one hand on a hip and the index finger of the other struck against a cheek, his head bowed, the back of his other foot hooked in the hollow of his knee, eyes fixed on the floor. He could stand like that for several minutes, lost in his thoughts."

Gustav Mahler left a deep impression upon me in my early to mid-twenties, beginning with the Kindertotenlieder, and culminating with the Ninth Symphony. While a graduate student at CalArts, I took my girlfriend to see the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Music Center with Carlo Maria Giulini conducting. This remains among the most transcendentally profound musical experiences of my life, like God sculpting life out of clay in real time in front of our eyes. We purchased tickets in the center balcony for five dollars each, but it was like there was no time and space, Giulini and the orchestra electrifying every atom of the hall, both empty space and matter, with charged meaning and feeling.

My favorite Jethro Tull album, Benefit, was first heard the night I lost part of my childhood innocence, the friend I visited in a gritty part of New York City, outside the sequestered suburbs where I lived, introducing me to ganja at the same time, something I never took to very well. Of course, Ian Anderson and Frank Zappa, among the most uninhibited and outlandish rock artists, both famously preferred to abstain from mind-altering substances.

From the Benefit album, "With You There To Help Me" and "To Cry You A Song" are among the treasures of twentieth century music, as are "Locomotive Breath" and the title track from Tull's Aqualung album. It is doubtful there is any music more purely British than Jethro Tull. Additionally, their music inspired one of the most purely American songs, "Hotel California," by the Eagles.


To give you an idea of how deeply I cherish Jethro Tull, if forced to choose between them and Mahler, I would go with the band formed in Blackpool, England. That's how extraordinary they are, touching a rasa unique unto themselves. There being no need to choose, of course, the symphonic labyrinths of Gustav Mahler are there for revisiting as well.

In terms of my title here, noticing a fondness for standing on one leg shared by both Mahler and Anderson, Gustav's unleashing of previously inhibited external emotions and inner psychological states may find connections with the subsequent musical and expressive catharsis informing the finest rock, especially under the direction of Leonard Bernstein, an early Mahler champion who also loved Jethro Tull.

- Michael Robinson, December 2021, Los Angeles


© 2021 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and musicologist. His 162 albums include 149 albums for meruvina and 13 albums of piano improvisations. He has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University.