Tuesday, November 8, 2011

In the news---Music, hearing, and aging

I found a short news clip, "Striking the Right Note" in Taste For Life (November 2011).  According to a research study conducted at Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care (9-13-11), "Lifelong musicians experience fewer age-related hearing problems than non-musicians."

I doubt this applies to rock musicians however since I've known many rock musicians who started losing their hearing in their 30s and 40s.

However, if you wish to check out this intriguing news bite, go to http://www.tasteforlife.com

Also in this publication, "Listening to music can ease cancer patients' anxiety and reduce their pain..."

Monday, November 7, 2011

Essay: Healing with Poly Rhythms

Photo by Patricia Herlevi

So often with sound healing or the concept of healing with music, an assumption that healing music must relax us rears its head.  Healing comes in many guises and each of us needs different types of healing.  We might need to boost our immune system, or boost our energy/vitality, we might need music to help us focus better or to relax from a stressful day.

This brings up one of my favorite concepts and that is purposeful music.  As we grow more conscious of how music affects our soul-mind-body, we build a music tool kit with multiple purposes.  Often I suffer from headaches and so I choose relaxing music, even drones without melody or audio sound scapes.  Some times I could use a good sound healing session with crystal bowls and tuning forks and other times I need to dance to West African drums, Brazilian samba, or need to get my body moving to something hot and Latin.

The purposeful music concept visited me twice within the last week.  I've dealt with huge amounts of stress since relocating such as job hunting, sending literary submssions off, and getting situation in a new environment.  So there are times when I just need to get this body moving and release stress or I need to recalibrate.  The other day when I walked into Wise Awakenings (a sound healing store near the YMCA), a woman was trying out crystal bowls.  The vibration from a set of bowls sent my frequency through the roof.  This took place after a reiki session so I was feeling pretty good at the time.

Later the same week, I felt sluggish.  A friend asked me to give a short lecture about salsa music for her dance class.  Although I had some trouble getting to the location, by the time I heard Latin music streaming from the classroom, I felt good, and that sluggish feeling completely disappeared.  This music included Cuban son, Dominican Republican merenge, and mambo.  The instructor (my friend) mentioned that people who dance to salsa and other Latin music (because of the swaying of hips and movement in the lower body) don't suffer from lower back problems.  But Latin music does more than relieve lower back pain.  This type of music with roots in Africa and Spain, forces the body to move.  And while the body is moving the immune system gains strength and depression lifts.  This is because Latin music spreads joy and feels celebratory.

I'm not saying that Latin music never expresses melancholy or suffering, because it does in the form of fados, flamenco, boleros, rancheras, etc, but this type of music creates avenues for catharsis.  So say you're feeling depressed, then listen to flamenco or a bolero.  Then as you move through that depression, gradually raise your frequency by choosing slighly more joyful music until you find yourself dancing to salsa or a merenge.

If you feel sluggish, like I did, start with slower music and work your way up to the faster tempo and start with simple rhythms and work your way to the more complex poly rhythms. In short, I repeat that healing with music includes many rhythms, genres, textures, timbres, tones, and moods.  As you grow more conscious by keeping track of how music affects you personally at various times and seasons in your life, you will consciously choose the right music for your situation just like you would choose the right foods for your body type.

In the future, I'll post an essay on keeping a music journal.  But for now, enjoy the musical ride.  And support global music.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

In review--Sing children, sing

Joshua Leeds
Good Night Baby
Music to Soothe Your Infant to Sleep
Sounds True

Jai Uttal
Kirtan Kids
The Elephant, the Monkey, and
The Little Butter Thief
Sounds True

If adults find the technological era stressful, imagine what children feel, especially the extra-sensitive infant.  Plenty of record labels release recordings for children and I’ve featured a handful on this blog already.  I contacted Putumayo about its children’s compilation series and never received a response, then Sounds True came out with Jai Uttal’s  (famous in the world of yoga kirtans) Kirtan Kids and psycho-acoustic researcher Joshua Leeds’ Good Night Baby (Music to Soothe Your Infant to Sleep).  While I don’t have any children myself, I feel that music is a healthy non-toxic medicine for stressed out children.  And in the case of Jai Uttal’s recording, he offers an avenue to a higher spiritual source.  A child needs to feel connected to the natural world and the Divine.  I know that as a child, these connections saved me from falling into endless despair.

Oddly Joshua Leeds returns to synthesizers/programming for Good Night Baby.  When he teamed up with Lisa Spector for Through a Dog’s Ear series, he insisted on employing only acoustic instruments, and in fact, was adamant about this in a radio interview I hosted in 2008.  Not that the programming seems out of place on Good Night Baby.  It actually works in a counter intuitive way when combined with sounds from the mother’s womb and classical chamber pieces performed on piano, oboe, and cello.

I listened to the entire recording one time through headphones.  I have no way of testing this recording out on infants so I’ll take the researchers word for it. However, I wonder what type of affect it would have on the rebirthing process for adults or healing traumas from the birth experience.  The famous French ear, nose and throat doctor Alfred Tomatis successfully combined Mozart’s concertos with sounds from the mother’s womb when working with children with vocal and hearing problems.  You can read about this in Don Campbell’s book The Mozart Effect.

Getting back to Leeds’ sound healing recording, the researcher/musician features three long-playing tracks including Earth Plane Welcome (17 minutes), Inside Mama (10 minutes) and Floating Free/Remembering Before (32:48 minutes).  Leeds and his chamber ensemble musicians, including pianist Lisa Spector, wed classical pieces by Brahms, Corelli, and Schumann to programming, while slowing and speeding up the music to match the infant’s energy.  Parents are encouraged to either play the entire CD or just pieces off of it depending on their infant’s response.

I’m wondering if this recording would also help an anxious dog relax around the infant.  Many dogs grow stressful around an infant entering the household and since the dogs already have their own series, I’m guessing that this new recording will help dogs relax too.  The concept is rife with possibilities and I’m certain that parents who have already purchased this recording are saying, “It’s about time.”

Jai Uttal isn’t the first musician to bring the music of India or even kirtans to children. I believe Putumayo arrived there first.  Nonetheless, I believe that kirtan chants could work wonders in teaching children how to focus and also increase their storytelling skills.  While adult kirtan recordings feature chants allowing the practitioner to connect with Divine entities, in the case of Sanskrit kirtans, Hindu gods, this children’s recording features fun stories to melodic call and response phrases. You hear Uttal telling the stories of Ganesh (the Elephant god), Hanuman (monkey god) and other colorful deities.  Then children sing along with the expressive Uttal.

While I’m certain the recording Kirtan Kids is fun for children and adults with children, I personally couldn’t get into it despite my sister-in-law calling me an eternal child.  But the songs here rise above cloyingly cute and they offer children a gateway to the divine experience, possibly healing some children of their lack of attention.  I also think that most children are aware of their spiritual nature, especially when they’re under the age of 5 and they need avenues, (why not a musical one), to express their spiritual yearnings.  I know I did as a child.

Each kirtan comes with a story which you can find in the colorful CD booklet along with the kirtan text.  In fact the CD packaging is exquisite with its Indian motifs.  I think Uttal describing his experience as a father and kirtan singer sums it up best.

“…The many streams of human life began to mingle with my boy’s incredible wise innocence—personality, wanting, individualization, the joy of saying ‘no.’ But still his eyes shone.  Singing to my Gopala gradually changed to singing with my Gopala.  And as the practice of kirtan reminds him of his divine nature, I realize that mostly it’s me who needs the reminding.  I fall asleep most of the time.  And my boy wakes me up.”

I realize that some parents will feel put off by Indian chants that feature Indian gods and that’s okay.  That’s probably not Uttal’s target market.  However, for parents who are more spiritually-open, why not introduce your child to these fun stories and engage in a sing-a-long that helps your child stay centered? The chants help a child to learn phrases, follow a lead singer, tell stories, learn how to focus, and stay spiritually connected as well as, learning about another culture. In a nutshell that's the mission of a cultural creative.

In review--Music for swooning

Grieg and Liszt
Piano Concertos
Stephen Hough
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra with Andrew Litton
Hyperion Records

Many years ago when I researched European classical composers who included folkloric dance and folk songs in their work, I encountered Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.  This was around the time that I became familiar with Norwegian folk music so the timing felt perfect.  As far as, the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, I’m most familiar with the work he composed after he joined a Franciscan monastery.  However, I had read stories about the romantic composer’s affects on ladies in attendance at his concerts.  Remember the passionate violinist in the movie The Red Violin? I’m guessing that character was loosely based on Liszt or at least the composer’s persona.

So when I placed Stephen Hough and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra’s latest recording featuring piano concertos by Liszt and Grieg, I expected to hear the kind of music that causes listeners to swoon.  And I wasn’t disappointed.  I also expected to hear folkloric influences and felt pleased when I could point those out to myself.  While these concertos which include Liszt Piano Concertos No 1 in E Flat major and No 2 in A major and Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor feature beautiful passages, I prefer to use the adjectives, powerful, bold, and in the case of Liszt, the descriptor brooding.  And true to the romantic era, you’ll hear fiery passages alternating with longing and a hint of sadness.

The opening of Liszt first piano concerto feels haunting, even foreboding. With its few notes acting as a theme or more or less, a motif, I’m reminded of Beethoven’s theme that opens his 5th symphony. You might think that something so simple and memorable would fall flat, but when combined with more expansive themes perform wonders on the listener’s psyche.  This motif is passed on from instrument to instrument, until an oboe (or is that an English horn) floats in with a more expansive motif which the piano then responds with a hint of wistful melancholy.  A cello takes up this new theme and engages in counterpoint with the piano. That is until the horns come in like a winter storm reintroducing the opening theme.

The second movement (although in the liner notes not called a movement), is sonata-like resembling a tranquil lake on a drizzly day.  I find the falling notes towards the end played on woodwinds enchanting.  And we go from tranquil to mischievous with the third section with the fourth section flowing in seamlessly with horns making declarations.

Liszt second piano concerto starts on a grief-stricken note, at least to my ears. A cello responds to the piano’s laments.  Then the pianist and orchestra launch into the long second movement which starts with a gypsy-like cello and more descending notes on the piano. The instruments brood with the cello taking brief flights of fancy.  Still this is a majestic piece that ends with a Hungarian gypsy extravaganza, which according to the liner notes didn’t go well with the music critics of that time.  However, I enjoy it.

The next two sections run just over three minutes and one and half minutes in length, but the composer and in this case, the pianist Stephen Hough and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra portray a large palette ranging from waltz-like piano that sends my mind whirling around the room to ethereal passages that would inspire Debussy and Ravel and the Hungarian gypsy influence returns as well.  When the final notes of this concerto resonated in my ears my only response was “wow!”

The recording ends with Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor.  The bold opening with its descending notes sounds familiar to my ears. I think this is in part that classical radio stations play this concerto often and for good reason, it has everything.  The liner notes describe the first movement as sonata-like, but it’s also heroic.  Still I most enjoyed the lyrical flutes in conversation with a French horn alternating with the piano’s cascading notes, not cascading like waterfall, but of driving hail against a windowpane.

The liner notes describe the second movement as hymnal with its warm horns, and tranquil piano for the most part.  Woodwinds converse gently with the piano and the movement ends with piano flourishes and then on a restful note.  The third movement takes on a bold and heroic stance, almost defiant.  First we hear a flute or a piccolo in revelry and then the piano plays lullaby-like passages that remind me of a boat rocking back and forth on a lake.  I can see why Ravel was inspired by Grieg since the two composers write enchanting musical passages.  Throughout the movement we hear hints of Norwegian folk music which encapsulates the calm slower passages and the spirited dance melodies.  The ending is worth mentioning as the orchestra builds in intensity performing elongated notes with punchy horn and passionate piano and closing with a timpani roll.

I listened to this recording over headphones as I do most classical recordings.  I also found that if I focused my attention on the music without multitasking I was able to catch the various nuances and shifting tones.  In some ways I found these piano concertos meditative, but not conducive for sitting meditation.  I connected to the natural world while listening to the concertos and I enjoyed hearing folkloric influences.  Certainly a listener of Norwegian or Hungarian heritage will enjoy this recording more immensely than I did, but its music for everyone.