Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Are You Stressed?

Sure, I criticize Tom Service sometimes, but he does good work over at the Guardian. His latest column titled "Music as stress reliever? Fine, but I like music that makes me stressed!" is a pretty good one. Here's the lead in:
Most of us have known this for years, but it seems that research by the Royal College of Music’s Centre for Performance Science finally proves that “listening to and performing music has been shown to have a positive, biological effect on mood and stress levels”. Evidence came from a survey of saliva samples, readings from ECG monitors (to which 15 singers and 49 audience members with various degrees of musical experience were voluntarily strapped), and the results from a questionnaire. The concert that produced this research? Eric Whitacre’s choral music at the Union Chapel in London in March.
And here is sample of Eric Whitacre's music:

Very pretty, indeed. But the reason I liked the column is that Tom goes on to point out the problem with this whole scientific/therapeutic way of looking at music:
There’s another dimension, too. Insisting on the stress-reducing effects of music, especially the soft-focused choral works of a composer such as Whitacre, is one thing. But music has more than that to offer. If reducing stress was the primary driver of musical expression over the centuries, musical culture would not have developed very far or become as meaningful as it is.
The levels of emotional intensity and intellectual stimulation produced by everything from Monteverdi to Mozart, Beethoven to Bruckner, Stockhausen to Xenakis, all create a kind of transcendence that comes from going to places of expressive extremity – and sometimes darkness and desperation - that would otherwise be dangerous to confront directly. In other words, it’s music that puts you through a stressful experience. It’s a positive stress perhaps, but it’s stress nonetheless... Music as palliative be damned: let’s hear it for stress!
Yes, exactly. People who have only a peripheral understanding of music are always trying to assimilate it to something else: sociology, therapy, intellectual activity, culture, politics, ideology and a host of other things. But music is, dare I say, music? It is its own universe and Tom, and every other music-lover, understands this. It takes us on journeys to places nothing else does. It can calm, yes, but it can excite, annoy, transcend, inspire, tweak and do a thousand other things.

My title refers to a seminal album from the 1960s, Jimi Hendrix' "Are You Experienced?" which is certainly an example of the unique qualities of music:

That dates from 1967. For another example, here is something just as stimulating from 1767. This is Haydn, Symphony No. 35 in B flat major with L'Estro Armonico, dir. Derek Solomons:

Now, can we have samples of everyone's saliva to test for stress? (Say, did they ever try and test for delight instead?)


Christine Lacroix said...

It was wonderful to wake up this morning to Eric Whitacre's Alleluia. Had me in tears. Haven't had time to listen to the rest yet. Thanks.

Bryan Townsend said...

You will definitely want to avoid the Jimi Hendrix!

Marc Puckett said...

This 'stress' about which people speak? what is it? It's one thing to use the word about the experience of performance, the labor of forging whatever it is that one forges etc etc but it seems to me that most of the time it's used in these latter days someone is unknowingly or unconsciously lamenting that she doesn't have the language with which to articulate the fact that human life is, in all its manifold beauty, none the less complex, filled with contradictions, endlessly challenging, replete with the necessity of choices between the good and the less good and the bad. Our contemporaries have abandoned the pursuit of the virtuous life and are left with 'stress' and its therapeutic antidotes; if music can serve that function, can be, as you observe, assimilated to that, all the better. On the 4th, in an address he delivered after receiving a couple of academic honors, Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, asked, what is music's purpose? He named three 'sources from which music emerges': the experience of love ("this also drove them [human beings] to express themselves in a new way: poetry, song, and music in general are born from this being struck, from this unveiling of a new dimension of life"), the experience of sadness, of being touched by death ("by pain, and by the abysses of existence: in this case as well there are unveiled, in the opposite direction, new dimensions of reality that can no longer find a response in speech alone"), and the "encounter with the divine, which from the beginning is part of that which defines the human". Leaving aside, if one chooses, Benedict's understanding of 'the divine', it remains a wonderfully refreshing, reinvigorating thing to read this brief recapitulation, this 'snapshot', as it were, of the entire trajectory of our common civilisation, from Plato to von Balthasar's Herrlichkeit, contrasting it with the wan hope Mr Service expresses that occasionally music might 'make us feel better' (although he seems to be on the side of the angels, as it were, in this essay).

Maestro Rilling's St John Passion was extraordinarily beautiful last evening. I have heard people prosing on about their grievances about this or that aspect of Rilling's forty years' stewardship of the OBF, but on each of these occasions, the speaker ended his complaint with 'but for Bach! he is unbeatable' or words to that effect: I don't know, 90% of my own listening to Bach being via recordings, but certainly tonight's performance was of the highest order.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for this beautiful comment, Marc. There are strong arguments that can be made for all of the sources of music that Benedict XVI mentions, of course. But for me it scarcely exhausts the "sources of music". For example, what is the source of the Diabelli Variations in this model? Just a passing thought...

I haven't heard Rilling's St. John Passion, but I will have to seek it out.