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.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Eating and Reading

Last week I resolved to stop reading while eating. I had some kind of buried thought that it wouldn't be that easy to do, as it has been a lifelong habit of mine, but it's been much harder than I imagined.

Why do this at all? you might ask. No real reason beyond just trying to be more mindful in my daily life. I've done some basic mindfulness meditation here and there (of the vipassana tradition) and have found it to be very helpful, and have always wanted to use the practice a bit more in normal, habitual life outside of sitting down for a twenty-thirty minute session. And food and eating is very important to me, something I give a lot of thought and energy to.

One reason I thought it might not be too hard is that I often find myself, somewhat comically, struggling with my book, trying to keep it open with one hand while I try to eat with the other, putting it down a moment and losing my place, fumbling clumsily with my food, trying to saw through a piece of vegetable with a didn't seem like it would be hard to give that up. Plus, I would often realize that I'd been reading virtually the same paragraph the entire time, meanwhile barely noticing the food I was eating. I wasn't really aware of either the food I was eating or the book I was reading.

And I think it would be good to train myself not to obsessively keep my mind going with some sort of stimulation constantly. But there's the rub! It's agony. If I sit down to breakfast, alone, and I don't have a book at hand, my mind goes a little nutso. If I treat myself to a lunch out on my day off and forget to bring something to read, it seems like torture, and I feel naked. It's such a firmly ingrained habit that I've mostly forgotten about my resolution this last week, almost every time I sit down to eat, catching myself as I start cleaning up my dishes.

It's no big deal, I suppose, and thus far my lack of resolution has been mostly humorous, but I'm going to keep trying. Of course, my subconscious keeps bringing up one of my favorite little lessons I learned once, which goes something like this: At a meditation center, two students noticed that their teacher was sitting at breakfast and reading the paper. Remembering that he often instructed them "When eating, just eat! When reading, just read!", they went up to him and asked him why he was doing both at the same time. He looked at them and said "When eating and reading, just eat and read!" I suppose it's no surprise that I like that story, as it provides some justification for one of my favorite pastimes. But I think the deeper message is not to be dogmatic about these instructions, or anything else by extension, which is a very valuable lesson, I believe.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A palm-reading experience from my youth

When I was twenty-three years old, just a year out of college, I worked as a 'teacher/naturalist' for an overnight camp and school called Nature's Classroom northeast of Columbus, Ohio. Schools would come to our site and spend between three and five days doing all sorts of crunchy outdoor nature stuff: building rope bridges and shelters, hiking, learning about wild edibles and birds and turtles and the web of life.  There were always chaperones, teachers and parents who came along as well to help manage the kids.  

One time one of the parents told the staff that she was learning to read palms from a friend of hers and would like to practice on us if we were agreeable.  We were, though we were mostly skeptical, me included, though I'm sure we were polite enough not to be rude about it.  But I'm sure we were also all curious.  

The other day I was going through a few personal papers I had stashed away and came across a piece of paper where I had written down what I had been told during my reading.  I remember being quite surprised and impressed with what she had told me.  In fact, at the time I was almost unnerved.  There was nothing in it that was truly overwhelming, nothing where I thought 'there's no way she could possibly know that about me' or anything like that, but nonetheless I was startled at what she read in my character and person after having met me maybe five minutes before and taking a brief look at my hand.  Most of what she said was more in the nature of describing me and my personality than in making predictions of the future or advice, though there was a little bit of that.  I ultimately decided that she was simply a very perceptive person, and of course there are people like that in the world.  

In any case, I've never really let go of what she said that day, and I've never forgotten the experience.  But it was interesting to actually see what I scribbled down regarding the session right after I was done with it, and I'd like to share it now with you for your curiosity and amusement, with commentary from my current-day incarnation.

She told me that I was:

Very sensitive  [I think this is true, sometimes painfully so, especially to emotional conflict]
Very nurturing  [partly true, but I can also be very self-involved and selfish with my time]
Very idealistic [definitely true, though I am not quite the crusader I once was]
and a little bit clairvoyant [???  Doesn't everybody think they're a little clairvoyant?  We've all had moments when we know what somebody is about to say or are thinking the same things and think it's too much of a coincidence - still it was gratifying in some strange way to hear this stranger say it]

She told me that I would make a good father.  [For what it's worth, I think this is true, but it seems to be a very slow boat]

She said that I think very much, very often, in many different and unusual tangents. [This is also true, I think, sometimes distressingly so, as I can't quiet my mind or focus on what I want or need to, and am often kept awake from the restless cascade of thoughts]

My fate line is to find my center, who I am, as my life and soul line are linked.  [Not sure what this means, but if it means that I would spend a lot of time thinking about who I am, what I want from life, what things are important to me, without much in the way of productive results, spot on]

Regarding my Love line,  I was told very matter-of-factly that I was in love.  [And I very much was so at the time. I was amazed that she said this.  Now I think it must have been obvious in everything about me and how I carried myself at that time, and an easy call]

 I was also told that I would have an intense, very strong, compatible marriage, passionate and perfect, until death do us part, and that it would take much time and thought and decision before I got there.  [This of course, was a prediction, and has not come true yet, but if it does, the part about it taking a long time and being a sometimes difficult process is a grand slam]

She said that I prefer to be a worker to a leader.  [True: I am not comfortable in leadership roles.  However, I also very much dislike abandoning my freedom and self-will to anybody else, and can get surprising defensive when I am asked to do things that I am not comfortable doing.  Ideally, I like to work in small groups of creative equals, or alone on personal projects]

Power is not of much concern to me.  [Absolutely true.  Otherwise I'd be president]

That's all she said, or at least all I wrote down.  

Still not sure what to make of the whole thing after all these years (15 years ago!!!)

Have a great day!