Friday, April 25, 2008

The Musical Chill

I've been reading Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century, for the last week or so, and enjoying it very much. It's an engaging, well-written, well-researched survey of classical music and musicians of the 20th century, and it gives a lot of insight and perspective into a lot of thorny, forbidding music. Nobody, of course, composes in a vacuum, and everybody is coming from somewhere. I've been a pretty avid explorer of this stuff for a long time, and many of my favorite pieces of music are difficult works by fellows such as Ives, Bartok, Webern, Ligeti, Schoenberg, etc, though I will readily admit that Mozart and Beethoven have a stronger hold on my heart. I am not a scholar, and the structural logic of these works usually escapes me, and so it takes a lot of effort and repeated listenings to really get a hold on music of that density. But I enjoy it; I really do. And lately, in concert with my readings, I've been taking pieces and listening to them again, carefully, and getting a lot out of them, maybe more than I have in the past. Maybe it's just the slow process of my ears and my brain opening a little bit more every year, maybe it's the synergy between the music and my readings, maybe it's the slow accumulation of repeat hearings, maybe it's all of the above. For somebody who loves stories as I do, the perspective you get learning about the lives of the musicians and the genesis and development of the art is invaluable. And the stories mirror the stories of the century - Shostakovich's struggle with Stalinism, Strauss' conflicted complacency within Nazi Germany, Copland's populist front during the New Deal and WWII America, Schoenberg's revolutions at the dawn of the century. In case you're curious, some pieces I've revisited lately in this context: Schoenberg's String Trio, Berg's Lyric Suite, Shostakovich's 5th Symphony, Stravinsky's Les Noces and L'Histoire du Soldat, Ruggles Sun-Treader.

One thing that the author mentioned briefly in passing that has grabbed my attention is the subject of what he calls the musical chill, when you experience a physical tremor that runs down the spine and stands hair on end while listening to music. He references a scientist named Jaak Panskepp who has researched this phenomenon, trying to figure out what causes it, both in a physiological sense but also what kind of music starts it off. Here's a quote from Mr. Ross's excellent blog "Panskepp says that music in which a solo instrument steps in front of a softer background is especially prone to cause this effect. He compares such moments to “the separation call of young animals, the primal cry of despair to signal caretakers to exhibit social care and attention.” I immediately thought of the Largo of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, in which solo winds sing out plaintive motifs over a backdrop of tremolando strings. An entire nation is crying for its mother in the night." To test this out, yesterday I put this piece of music on my stereo and paid particular attention to the largo; it is a wonderful piece of music but I didn't experience the chill.

The musical chill has always fascinated me, and I have certainly experienced it many times. In a way it is an exagerrated demonstration of what is so mysterious and unexplainable about music, which is why it appeals to us at all. I know that theories abound, and I'm sure most of them have merit, but they all still seem light years from telling us why such an arcane art form that seems to have no practical contribution to our survival can take on such profound meaning and have such a deep emotional effect on so many people, to the point where we can experience a shivering moment almost akin to sexual release. This has gotten me thinking about what music causes this phenomenon in myself, and immediately two things spring immediately to mind: first, the passage in Mozart's Don Giovanni, presaged in the overture and then appearing with the Commendatore near the end, where the strings play the rustling, rising sequence of scales to accompany that ghostly, powerful presence. Second, the brassy apotheosis about two-thirds of the way through the first movement of Sibelius' second symphony. The thing that really amazes me about these examples is that they do it to me every time. I don't know if I've ever listened to either of those passages and not had a shiver run down my spine, as if the response has been etched in my DNA.

I'm going to keep thinking about this and try and remember other pieces of music that do this for me. And, actually, it's been spurring some other thoughts of how I might use this concept in some embrionic writing ideas I have, so if you can think of any pieces of music that produce this 'musical chill' on you, I'd love to hear about it, either in the comments or in an email to Fascinating stuff.

1 comment:

Brad Kenney said...

There are a couple of passages in Neutral Milk Hotel's "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" that make me cry (particularly the last verse) but that's a combination of lyrics and music -- for me, one moment that always thrills is in the middle passages of Can's "Hallulewah" when there's about a 16 bar buildup and then the keyboard just explodes into the mix...maybe it's got something to do with overdriving your sensory inputs?
Actually, when they pull it back out a little bit later has a similar effect, now that I think about it.
(FYI just found an entire Can channel on YouTube.)