Music and Instinct

When you have become a parent you will know that very soon and without noticing it you become very precisely attuned to the voice of your child, such that you would hear the child crying amongst a thousand distractions and other noises and be absolutely certain the child crying is your child.

This has happened to everyone who has had a child; probably too, it happens to many of the more sentient animals regarding their own offspring.

I tend to think our responses to hearing and ‘getting-into’ the music are somewhat likewise instinctual and akin or even based psychologically within the same root of recognition sensitivity, as is our parental awareness.  I can’t demonstrate this, but I am going to try to say a few words about our instincts and music.

I guess most people have heard played and performed Mississippi Delta Blues. Something like the bending of notes on ‘Little Red Rooster’ by the guitar goes a long way right into you, and somehow in some kind of way you feel you know the music via its ability to connect with you.

A bent note is like a wrench in your body and mind; almost physically so because so emotionally vivid.  There are people who flood into tears whenever they hear certain moving pieces of music, and this effect again demonstrates a vivid and taut connection having been made between music and listener.  The music pulls at us.

Then there are the effects of rhythms, some of the more subtle ones, such as that marvellous one in The Congolese Mass Sanctus ‘Missa Luba’ – made famous by its use in Lindsey Anderson’s movie ‘If’ – when after the choir having sung out ‘Sanctus’ there are two firm drum beats followed by a – what shall I say – I am no technical musician – I guess a ‘wave’ of singing rolling heavily and then breaking as if foam across a shoreline?  This roll of this wave draws you along with it – the analogy of movement and of being thrown up the beach with the song of the choir, is a good one because there is indeed implicit in the listener’s mind a sense of feeling a swaying of the people singing in the choir to their music as the song progresses.

Another high-point for myself I find is in many parts of the Choral Movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  Especially at that point when the flow of music stops abruptly, and a pause, and then following four voices treble alto baritone bass gradually and slowly starting an intertwining long weaving melody each, which rises in volume and intensity until the bass is heard enter and the soprano carols until she rises to a note seemingly made in heaven as a finale to this short interlude.

When she hits that note one wonders what it might mean metaphysically – where does that note come from – what is it in that note and the voice of the female singer that just hits the button full on?  What is it saying to me?

Such questions go beyond consciousness I’m sure, and if there are answers they reside deeply hidden within us. We know them, like a mystical experience, like a mystic knows what s/he writes down or describes s/he feels when in receptive state of mind; certain that in some ineffable way that these things are more real than our senses are.

Try watching an action movie or a romantic movie with the sound turned down to off; that is without the music. Action sequences tend to look like a mad chaos without their music to steer us emotionally; romance looks kind of plain and insipid without sound and music.  Good music has carried many a shaky movie to a safe harbour ending.

Then there are those special people whose voices just magically grab you. Motown and Stax had so many in the sixties and seventies that we were spoilt for choice. For me perhaps no-one matched the late Otis Redding. Now here was a person who was the music he performed; I’m sure he just didn’t differentiate himself from his musical performance when he was on stage.  He, like his influence, Sam Cooke, could bend notes with his voice, could ad lib and interject, make up the vocal energy as he went along, and keep a number on fire throughout like just about no-one else could. But it was not just raw energy; it was again something in the voice and the music which entered into one who was listening as if inside yourself as you listened so the song its drama and lyric were acting themselves out in your body.

Sam Cooke or Otis Redding singing ‘Change Gonna Come’ – a Sam Cooke song – is something else.

Then there are the classical singers. Have you heard tenor Jussi Bjorling sing La Boheme or have you heard baritone John Shirley-Quirk sing Vaughan William’s settings of ‘Song of Travel’ a book of poems by Robert Louis Stevenson; both singers again hit you in that spot where you know something is happening which is real and solid but you can’t say what it is.

And this brings me to what I want to say about the human voice; which is the primal instrument; that instrument which in all probability was the first to be discovered by men and women wayback.

Blues singers, Motown, Opera, World, and many more genres in which people sing are all united in that the addition of the voice to harmony and melody rhythm and tempo, is a kind of upgrade to a pitch of value and validity hardly reachable by much, maybe most, music alone and without voice.

It is when one has voice added, that it is most likely that, if that magical moment is going to arrive, it is more likely to arrive with voice, than without.  I recall visiting a cathedral and whilst I was walking around taking in all the stonework there was a woman, a fairly deep alto, with accompaniment practicing for a concert to be given later that day.  I think she was singing practicing items for Handel’s ‘oratorio Messiah’. 

I have always loved to hear altos – and there are so many great legacy British ones – on recordings singing solo arias like ‘He was despised’ and ‘Who may abide….”  (Joan Sutherland, Kathleen Ferrier, Helen Watts) from “Messiah”, and this woman in the cathedral rehearsing was so very good; her voice just had a timbre that resonated and pulled a person up short. I sat and listened for as long as I had time to her rehearsing.

Voice sung then is like the child’s voice to the parents; at its best it can connect to a person hearing it with a certainty that cannot be delved or fathomed.  It goes back, way back, into our prehistory I’d suggest; and to those times when maybe language was only half-formed and communications were semi-primal and proto-linguistic, when a call or a cry was a signal, and a signal not only of danger or of need or of desire etc but a signal of exactly who desires, fears, needs, and maybe also whom they need, desire, and protects them.    

There’s some evidence to back this claim I think. Rock n Roll was condemned by those it shocked in the 1950s as being ‘jungle music’ or ‘bestial music’ half human and lewd and offensive.  Also there’s been plenty of racism worked into descriptions of the music and genius of other ethnicities than white Caucasian; and much of this obscured racism has characterised this music having  ‘animal power’ and as being ‘primitive’ or as being ‘crude and unsophisticated’ and suchlike.

Clearly the music hit home as it was intended to, even if the responses to it were frightened and averse in ‘respectable’ quarters.  These condemning people’s very characterisations of such types of music were on the money as far as the impact these types of music have on ones psyche; but so had Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and there are high-art intellectual composers like him, such as Harrison Birtwhistle and Mark Antony Turnage, both working today, who are producing operas and orchestral works with the same fierce and powerful energies and impacts as have jazz and blues, sambas, and Latin beat works and so on.

So it’s not a mere matter of primitive or animal; it is instead a matter of tapping into that hidden instinctual depth in us, and any music of any kind of genre is capable of achieving this, whether or not complex or straightforward. The important quality is what the Romans labelled “genius” by which I don’t mean super-cleverness but rather as the Romans meant it – tapping as a composer or songwriter or singer into one’s daemon, into one’s inner psyche and from its treasure wells hauling up and out into the open form and pattern, shape and sound, something equally acknowledgeable in others as having come from the depths of being.

No-one has libelled the Russian composers as half-civilised etc etc; yet hang onto your chair when you listen to the opening half hour of Mussorgsky’s opera “Boris Godunov”.  The scene is the Royal Tsarist Court and a coronation is going on. In the square thousands of the masses congregate to cheer the new Tsar into power.  Mussorgsky’s music is at one and the same time able to incorporate the rough and milling masses and their bristling emotions with the massive pomp and dignity of the Russian Royal Court and of the Russian Orthodox Church presence, and their worldly power and their spiritual weights; so that the music absorbs all these aspects and really it does overpower a listener with awe and incredulity.

Not just the choirs and the bass voice of Boris himself, but the thunderous deep and gonging church bells accompanying the choir, sing out against what sound like ancient religious-based melodies and harmonies. Believe me it is astonishing. The bells are subduing to one’s thoughts in themselves, and the choir’s singing thus appears to be showing mere tempestuous human rejoicing whilst the terrible and blind Hand of Fate is carrying all along with it regardlessly, relentlessly.

A final example of the human voice at work – yearning – expressing earnest need and desire – and taken from a movie “A Streetcar Named Desire”.

Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) comes to a fire escape steps to call up to his wife Stella (Kim Hunter).  She has gone away from him after a spat and is staying at friends’. Stanley goes to get her back.  He just stands at the base of the fire escape steps and lets out several calls which are at once terrible and deeply yearning for his wife, calls which hit to the heart to hear and which do the task they seek to have done.  Just like a buffalo or a moose calling relentlessly and searchingly in a wilderness to its mate, whom it has lost sight of.

Stella’s response is to leave her friends’ house and come down the fire escape steps to her husband.  The vivid, seductive, and tremendous raunchiness Kim Hunter puts into her walk descending the stairs is a sight and experience to behold.  It is her response to being, as it were, “love-called” back by her mate.

Few actors could have put that certain ingredient into the calls up the stairs to Stella to return.  It’s a movie moment and not easily forgotten or ignored.  Marlon Brando just seems to have ‘understood’ what was necessary and gives it – I would say he couldn’t have analysed it beforehand, but only felt inside very surely what was necessary and delivered that.

Again it’s the timbre, the tremor of sensitivity, which is able to reach inside the self and draw out from very dark and intimate places things most of us can only acknowledge once we have seen or heard them put before us.

Music hath not only charms to soothe the savage breast; music has raw power, and especially in the hands of an adept, a person initiate into its and the soul’s mysteries.

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