Piano heaven, immersion and affect in music

I had the opportunity to play piano properly today for the first time in years and years. 2 1/2 hours lost in blissful concentration at Will’s. It was unheated, but even chilly me didn’t pay attention to that until when I finished, and realised my hands were like ice.

I have missed the particular headspace that comes with playing music so much lately. I started out with some two-part inventions by Bach (that I used to play), then into that Satie Gnossienne I like – no. 1. A simple piece, but it has a hypnotic quality that I love. Some Chopin, but I only just dipped my toes there.

I got rid of a bit of the dust that has settled on any remaining ability, but I obviously need to play much more – I am quite rusty.

I have been thinking about immersion in music a lot. Cai woke up at some ungodly hour, and my brain started ticking so I lay awake for quite a while, thinking about it. Much as I’d rather have stayed asleep, I do like nighttime thinking.

I guess what guides how much someone gets emotionally immersed in a musical experience to a degree depends on their aptitude for arousal. For some, the more soothing end of the spectrum may be more attractive. For others, the more rousing, the better.

At any rate, just like in any other immersive ‘environment’, it seems that the balance between chaos and order is crucial. If order is precision, structure and clarity, and chaos is dissonance, free-form and distortion, then maybe I can sketch something out that makes sense. Do bear in mind that I predominantly write from a dancer’s, not a musician’s or producer’s point of view. For me, it is a matter of hearing, feeling and expressing in physical form.

I have often felt that music needs to be ‘textural’ in order to really move me on an emotional level. With textural, I mean a sound that feels a little hairy, hoarse or ‘gritty’. Say, the sort of sounds you expect to hear for example in blues, tango, fado, flamenco – and of course baladi. I recall reading about the recording of Candi Staton in the 70s – apparently, the producer got her to sing so many times that her voice started breaking. You can hear it, and the slight distortion of her voice is definitely part of what gives those recordings a sense of emotional urgency.

Looking into this, I have come across descriptions of this as distortion – adding ‘grit’, warmth or texture. It seems both odd-order and even-order harmonics are involved, and although odd-order has a bit of a bad name, it seems to be more about taste rather than objectivity.

Overtones seems to be closer to what I actually mean. This Wikipedia article on dissonance, consonance and resolution is very interesting. Dissonance and resolution is analogue to build-up and release of tension, so contributes greatly to the emotional expression in music.

This article on distortion technique says it rather well. There is more stuff on that site (musicalratio.com) that looks worth looking into. There is an interesting article on affect and one on musical communication that come excitingly close to what I am trying to communicate about the creation of immersive experiences. Take this, for example:

The human brain needs the condition of constant or stable irregularity for it to remain alert and attentive. Irregularity produces a state of alertness and attentiveness. And constancy or stability eliminates the feeling of discomfort which chaos, the erratic and irregular, often creates. The balance in tension between the feeling of predictability which constancy (stability) provides and the feeling of anticipation which irregularity and unpredictability creates is a state of Entasis.

The last time I heard the term entasis was when studying history of architecture, but of course it – tensioning – makes wonderful sense as opposed to my arch-dislike: stasis.

It is the musical analogue of why it just doesn’t work to use a ruler to draw straight lines in a drawing. Exact is too exact. This lies close to the concept of ‘uncanny valley’ in CGI. What we need is cross-disciplinary, aesthetic awareness. Maybe it is not such a bad thing to be a bit of a jack-of-all-trades..? My chequered past, put to good use.


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