February 13, 2011

Random babblings: On keys, seeking, doors, and music

There are moments in our lives when we come across things that open doors for us.  The frame of it can be anything-- a book, a song, a place, a person --but what provides the key?  So often we walk by doors that seem interesting, yet they remain locked because we aren't drawn to explore what's on the other side.  It seems we have to be at the right place intellectually and/or emotionally for the door to swing open and that first step to be taken over the threshold.   

I can easily think of the times when this has happened to me and every one of them relates to a significant interest in my life -- 

Reading Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment in high school was the first big one.  Class discussions of Nietzsche's idea of man vs. superman led to an exploration of existentialism that opened out into the entire field of philosophy.   

A similar opening occurred upon hearing 46+2 by Tool, as I stepped straight from that song into Carl Jung's writings about the psyche and, specifically, the shadow.    

It didn't take long after moving to Maryland in my early 20's to begin finding all of the U.S. Civil War battlefields that are practically in my backyard.  The beauty of these preserved places drew me to the door, but the fascination of learning about the battles and the experiences of the people who lived (or died) during them was what pulled me through.  It's continuously amazing to me just how much can be learned from such a short period in history. 

One thing I've never written about is the vision quest that led to my discovery of Buddhism.  The path through that door was a convoluted one but its eventual impact has probably made a bigger difference in my life than any other.

So what is it that puts the key into our hand?  In Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin talks about the four primal emotions that drive animals:  Rage, prey chase drive, fear, and curiosity/interest/anticipation.  Obviously, these can easily be applied to human behavior and it's that last, curiosity/interest/anticipation, that opens these pivotal doors and pushes us through--

"...this part of the brain [is called] the SEEKING circuit.  Animals and humans share a powerful and primal urge to seek out what they need in life.  We depend on this emotion to stay alive, because curiosity and active interest in the environment help animals and people find good things, like food, shelter, and a mate, and it helps us stay away from bad things, like predators."

When projected beyond our most basic needs, such seeking keeps us not only alive but also sane by triggering our reception to those things that will stimulate us and make us grow intellectually and emotionally.  Without it, we become stagnant and stunted, stumbling down an ever darkening hallway of locked doors.

I babbled recently about being stuck in that hallway and casting about for a key.  Which is funny, really, because at the same time that I've felt stuck in so many ways, I've also been busy exploring an extraordinarily stimulating set of doors opened around this time last year by my discovery of Jack White.  Anyone following this blog who's not a fan of Jack is probably becoming tired of seeing his name, but it's not going to end any time soon because the further I go the more I get.  First was a compulsion to explore his music, then it was the blues music that inspires him, and now, suddenly, it's a desire to understand music in general.  Why now?  I've been exposed to a wide variety of music since I was old enough to hear-- No one in my family sang or played an instrument, but my parents constantly had music playing on the radio or stereo.  You name a musical artist in the 60's-70's, from Burl Ives to the Beatles, and I listened to them at some point.  Branching off into my own exploration of music took me down some unfortunate roads (Kiss and hair-metal), and perhaps that's why music was always an important soundtrack to my life, but not quite an inspiration.  But Jack's passion for music is infectious and watching him play has apparently stimulated that SEEKING circuit in my brain.

The latest door opened yesterday when I picked up a copy of This Is Your Brain On Music, The Science of a Human Obsession, by Daniel Levitin.  The combination of the words 'music' and 'obsession' in the title made me grab the book off of the shelf.  The idea of understanding not only what music is but also why it's so addictive (a favorite theme of mine) is exactly where my head is at these days, and Levitin's book started out on just the right note:  a comparison of how "the work of both artists and scientists is ultimately the pursuit of truth" leading into concise explanations of musical concepts such as pitch, timbre, melody, and harmony had me squirming in my chair in excitement.  When he used the way children sing the alphabet song to explain rhythm, I almost laughed out loud because it was so simple and perfect.  And yet so much of what this book is about is not simple, and that makes it intriguing.      

Today's music lesson is on the element of harmony.  As described by Levitin--

"Harmony has to do with relationships between the pitches of different tones, and with tonal contexts that these pitches set up that ultimately lead to expectations for what will come next in a musical piece-- expectations that a skillful composer can either meet or violate for artistic and expressive purposes.

As a band, the Raconteurs are a terrific example of this concept.  Anyone who followed the White Stripes might have had trouble imagining Jack working in harmony with other musicians.  Meg was as much muse as partner for him, a springboard that launched his ideas and allowed him the freedom to explore them in a different direction every night on stage.  But sitting down with a song-writing partner?  Adding not only that second singer/guitarist/songwriter, but also an experienced drummer and bass player to the equation?  In many ways, working with these other musicians could have been as difficult a set of constraints for Jack as the red and white box he created for the music of the Stripes.    

Typically, the results confounded the sort of expectations that Levitin described.  The Racs created moments of gorgeous harmony in songs such as Together and These Stones Will Shout.  Other songs like Intimate Secretary were a combination of both meeting and violating harmonic expectation, when Jack's voice or Patrick Keeler's crashing cymbals would be used as a jarring contrast to the mellowness of Brendan Benson's singing.  Then they'd throw in an entire song that would be dissonant to the rest of the album, as with Broken Boy Soldier or Five On the Five.  But one song sums up for me the dynamic that defined this band, that balance of harmony and dissonance that electrified them.  From the glorious blending to the quirky separation of Jack and Brendan's voices and guitars, the only thing wrong with this song is that it's just too short.

Official video of the studio version of Level--

Live version recorded on set--

I've come to feel that discovering Jack has been like walking up to a huge mansion and being handed a ring of keys to every door inside it.  It's led into one room after another, each containing new sounds, new genres, new understandings, new experiences...  and for that I couldn't possibly thank him enough.         


Monya said...

Only: Yes!
While I think Mr. White is a student of music, design, marketing, human nature, etc, I always marvel at his instincts in all of those endeavors.
That studio recording of Level blew several minds in our household when we first saw it.
Patti Boyd wrote that she saw both Harrison and Clapton move their hands when they slept, like they were playing a guitar. It's an extension of their body, mind and psyche.
This entry made me think of that observation.

KaliDurga said...

That observation sounds as if it better fits my last post, about guitar being a "strange bird" for him.

Angelina S. said...

Just added that book to my wishlist! Thanks for the suggestion.

Also, love your last paragraph.

KaliDurga said...

One thing not mentioned in the last paragraph is all of the new people I've found wandering through that big White mansion -- You and Monya amongst them. That, of course, has been one of the best things of all.

And your pile of books to read sounds as if it's becoming as tall as mine! There's just too much good stuff out there...

the gardeners cottage said...

hi tam,

i've had to really think about this before i commented. i will def be getting that book. i know i, and my oldest son will find it fascinating as we discuss this all the time.

i'm not sure but is the book suggesting that we are all drawn to different types of music b/c of the way our brain reacts to different rhythms? that would make perfect sense to me if that's the suggestion. i don't know why other types of music were unable to reach me during my depression. i always thought that it was jack's words that did it mostly. i was just having this convo with #1 the other day. because of my catholic background i get hooked into all his lyrical references and then combine that with his music and something happens in my brain that i cannot describe.

i'm in utah with lousy internet connection so last night i was watching under the blackpool lights on my computer and i honestly get mesmerized and soothed at the same time. sorry to ramble again but as you know i don't have many places to ramble about this. thanks for listening.


ps - i'd love to come over and help you sort your stuff! and i didn't proof read this.

KaliDurga said...

Hi Janet,
I haven't yet gotten to the part about what attracts different people to different songs, but the book basically looks at our reaction to music from a neuroscientific perspective. It goes way beyond just rhythm-- the section I just read discussed why we react the way we do to certain scales and chords, and is now getting into an explanation of timbre. Absolutely fascinating stuff.

But I think you're right that there's much more to it than just music-- Some people would argue that lyrics are secondary to the music, but I personally find that the lyrics have to resonate somehow for me to truly connect with a song. So it could very well have been the WS lyrics that got through the cloud you were under, but the music is what carried them there. A truly skillful songwriter crafts both together to carry the message-- one's the warp, the other the weft, and you can't have a magical flying carpet without both. And now I'm babbling.

If you enjoy Blackpool, I've got some other shows I should send to you :)