by Wayne Shevlin
Some grooves make you shake your bootie. A stadium anthem can get you swaying with lighters in the air. And some music brings tears to your eyes.
There are certain pieces of music that make me cry. Consistently. Spontaneously. Involuntarily. It requires conscious effort to shut the tears off. The tears differ in kind, are evoked for different reasons. I am intrigued by music’s ability to manipulate my emotions. I am perplexed as to why, from time to time, I deliberately subject myself to stimuli which I know will result in making me cry. I can only guess at how unsettling it must be for B to see me standing there, headphones encasing my head, tears rolling down my cheeks. She must wonder why too.
Sometimes, it is that a piece of music has an association with a specific event in my life. Regardless of its musical or lyrical content, it triggers an emotional response in the same way a smell can take you back to nursery school (something that happens to me when passing by the Swiss Cottage McDonalds – only that branch does it) . Effective – but this is a superficial evocation. It isn’t the music per se, but an external relationship between the music and my life which the composer and performer had no knowledge of or control over. For me, the song Let Her Cry by Paul Bollenback performed by Hootie & the Blowfish is the best example. It’s not a brilliant song. It is brutally sad in its own right, but what gives it the power to make me cry uncontrollably is that it was playing on the radio constantly as I drove back and forth to the hospital in LA during the week in which my mother died. I also found the lyrics strangely relevant -as though Hootie knew the situation and was singing for me.
Thus, Let Her Cry, unintentionally, became the official soundtrack to that short but traumatic period of my life. I cannot listen to it without that week materialising in my mind as though it were yesterday. It is painful to remember. And yet, from time to time, I deliberately put it on knowing full well what the result will be. Though it rekindles the sadness, it also brings back the memory of my mother more powerfully and tangibly than anything else. I just wish I had a happy song that had the same effect.
More interesting to me is music that makes me cry not because it is acting simply as a cheap emotional trigger, but that the music embodies emotion within itself and communicates that to me directly. It becomes part of my internal emotive mechanisms and drives them without my conscious participation. There are two pieces of instrumental music which make me cry – and for completely opposite reasons: one because it sounds so sad and the other because it sounds so beautiful.
Classical music has many examples of exquisitely sad pieces – Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor and Barber’s Adagio for strings are obvious and well worn examples – but the one that does it for me every time is the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony and specifically as performed by the Columbia Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bruno Walter. I discovered this piece in a strange way when I was a teenager. A solo piano arrangement of it was used as the background music in a Peanuts cartoon – the one with Charlie Brown – to evoke Charlie’s sad-sack, dumped on existence. The music grabbed me immediately and it took some good deal of investigation to discover what it was.
The 2nd of the 7th has been a guaranteed tear-jerker for me ever since. I don’t know why, but that piece just makes me cry. What can I say? Beethoven clearly has his finger on my musical sad-button with that one. It covers all levels of sadness, running the gamut from a sombre whimper to Burghers of Calais torment – the way the wailing theme is handed back and forth between the upper and lower registers. Very finely crafted and very, very minor. By the way, I’ve tried many other versions: Von Karajan, Rattle, Toscanini and many other conductors. In my opinion, no one gets Ludwig Van like Bruno.
On the other side of the spectrum is an instrumental electric guitar piece by Joe Satriani called Friends from his album The Extremist. It’s a crunch chords and wheedley-woo number, but unlike most power-rock played by pyrotechnic Strat abusers, it is incredibly melodic and any fretboard acrobatics are all in the service of the music, not the other way around. Undoubtedly there is a component of admiration involved because I know how much is involved in playing it from a technical perspective. Perhaps I’m crying because I know I’ll never play that well. Not really – I just think it’s gorgeous. The lines soar and lift my heart with them.
Finally, there are songs that make me cry primarily because of the lyrics. Lyrics are lyrics because they are meant to be set to music. The two must support and reinforce each other. It is frequently the case that great lyrics make lousy poems. There are a number of songs with evocative, emotive lyrics that move me to tears: The Cruel War performed by Peter Paul & Mary, Sondheim’s Send In The Clowns performed by Judy Collins – but the song that really does me in every time is Comfortably Numb by Roger Waters & David Gilmour performed by Pink Floyd. Each time I think: “no, not this time”, but as it works its way through the second verse I lose it: “When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse/ Out of the corner of my eye/ I turned to look but it was gone / I cannot put my finger on it now/ The Child has grown, the dream is gone/ I have become comfortably numb“.
These words, set to the backdrop of the sombre, resigned melancholy of the music – written, I believe, by Gilmour and beautifully arranged – are imbued with such a powerful sense of loss and hopelessness that I feel my entire existence vanish into the darkness. My child’s dream is gone. This is then followed by what is, in my opinion, Gilmour’s most powerful and exquisite guitar solo which cries too, along with me.
So why do I do it? Perhaps you are worried about me – what’s this guy doing to himself? I am happy to say that in daily life I have few legitimate reasons to cry – so maybe this is a way to empty out the few tears that accumulate over time and have no other outlet. But I’m not the only person who allows music to move them to tears. And if it’s not music, then perhaps it’s some other art form such as movies. Plenty of people (who shall remain nameless) are happy to subject themselves to romantic weepies and blubber away. Clearly, many of us use art as catharsis. In some way we need it – this strange enjoyment we get from self inflicted sadness. Sometimes, for some reason, we need to cry for the sake of it – whether in sorrow or in joy. Somehow, it makes us feel better. But by using art we are in control. We can turn it off or walk away. The emotional release is in there, but only if we allow it.
“Beethoven was not a good “melodist” and he was bad at harmony,” Leonard Bernstein
Go to 5.18 as Bernstein discusses with Maximilian Schell Beethoven Symphony No. 7