Tag Archives: music

A Last Musical Wish

Few would probably want to listen to a full requiem as their last act, nor would they want to put their mourners through the extended storms of sound that most contain.  What works? 

One wag once offered the view that death was God’s way of telling you to slow down. It’s probably a better joke only for people who have lived a full and busy life. Yet it is an interesting thought experiment to inquire about the kind of music that might be requested from a person about to depart this world. What might they want to hear, if anything? What might we suggest?

So much music is written to acknowledge death, or to celebrate a person’s life. Brahms, Verdi, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Fauré, and others have written full requiems, or music intended to memorialize the dead. It’s perhaps the least they could do for their mostly private benefactors. The rest of us—if we have such wishes at all—might muse about something closer to home: a piece of music that serves as a kind of summarizing farewell.

This query has some interesting science behind it.  We have evidence that hearing is durable to the very end of life, and maybe even a little further. It is one of the last functions to shut down. Even in dying patients, the brain apparently continues to receive sounds through the auditory nerve.

In the film The Big Chill college friends reunite at the funeral of one of the group who took his life in his 30s. Another helpfully pounds out a version of the Rolling Stones “You Don’t Always Get What You Want” on the church organ. The knowing smiles of the rest suggests a building middle-aged angst that director Lawrence Kasdan used as the film’s theme.

Music as the  Embodiment of a Life

More optimistically, folk legend Pete Seeger seemed to know exactly what he wanted to say in a piece he wrote for a deceased friend. It is a simple ballad that also represents the grace of Seeger himself. The musical tribute he and a choir offer seems just right: a suitable requiem for the Hudson Valley troubadour who died in 2014.

Few would probably want to listen to a full requiem as their last act. One exception might be Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem. The last portion, In Paradisum, is the essence of a musical promise of something better that is yet to come.  It is the sonic equivalent of weightless levitation; anyone should feel renewed by its invitation to let the woes of the world to fall away.

There’s clearly no single right choice for all. My regret about those reaching the natural end of a full life is that health care in this period usually won’t allow a last musical denouement. The sounds of hospitals and medical machinery often dominate. Helpful though they are, they often preclude the sonics of what could be a “good death.”

Though I don’t plan to need it soon, right now I’d select the Sussex Carol by the Choir of Women and Girls of England’s Canterbury Cathedral for sustained listening. Young voices put to the service of familiar music can make magic. Next week the choice will probably be something else.

Folks creating films, dramas and operas often find the right mix of musical elements. Composers have to be good at finding musical benedictions that pull off the miraculous task of converting feelings into sound.

Our Neglected Sense

Most of us are not very practiced in using a tool that have we’ve been given.  We listen to others.  We notice sounds. But we’re not very sophisticated in appreciating what pristine sound can reveal. 

Imagine a relative who rarely strays from home and who has also just bought a luxury performance car.  It will transport him to and from the grocery store, along with a few other places in his community.  But the car will probably never see the open road. So it all seems like a mismatch. The owner will ask so little of a car that is designed to do so much.

The same can be said for how we use the miraculous sense organs thoughtfully attached to both sides of our head.  We and most animals are binaural listeners.  We hear in stereo.  And that gives us the ability to locate where sounds come from.  But that’s only the start.  The mechanical bones and nerves of the middle and inner ear are amazingly sensitive.  They are—pardon the pun—perfect windows fully open to mere whispers coming from the outside world.  Admittedly, if you are my age, they are mostly open.  Hearing acuity is best in children, which is one reason they are easily startled by the rude noises of the everyday life.

Here’s the point.  Most of us are not very practiced in using the tool that have we’ve been given.  We listen to others.  We notice sounds.  But we are too accepting of assaults on our ears in places where we work and play.  These intrusions into our aural space may come from motorcycles, lawn equipment, loud restaurants, car horns and a hundred other sources.  We tolerate loud noise and constant sound—frequently frying ears and brains in the process. A result is a dulling of our hearing, forcing us to miss what pristine sound can tell us.

All of this forces us to overlook the pleasures of natural sound layering, where ambient sounds can mix or contrast with dominant foreground source. For example, stand in a quiet forest long enough, and our aural sense of depth can open up.  In the woods, air moving through trees has its own auditory signature.  Add in a pair of birds calling back and forth to each other over a distance, and the whole scene seems richer and more interesting.  This is dimensional listening, reclaimed when we liberate ourselves from the racket of a world.

The organized sound of music is where we are more likely to pay attention to the spatial capabilities of the aural.  But even here, we frequently ruin the experience by depending on cheap electrical devices that distort, or are too loud for the delicate mechanisms of the ear.  The result flattens music into a one-dimensional experience.

Putting ambient noise into the mix helps us hear the dimensionality that we have often trained ourselves to ignore. 

Consider a variation on this problem. If you view nearly any Hollywood film produced after 1950, the sound of the actors singing will usually not match the space they are in.  Most were recorded on a sound stage first, lip-syncing later on the set.  So at the start of the landmark musical Oklahoma! Curly rides his horse across the open prairie gloriously singing Oh What a Beautiful Morning, but in the incongruous acoustics of a reverberant studio. The same is true with most action sequences, where dialogue is re-recorded later on. “On location” sound is difficult to capture. There is an old assumption that “pre” or “post” dubbing will not be noticed.  But your ears can easily recognize the aural discontinuity of different spaces.

Try this simple experience.  Listen to a good acoustic recording on good headphones.  And see, if over time, you can place the layout of the players or singers.  Are they all in the same acoustic?  Who is in front and who is in back?  Where is the piano on the ‘sound stage’?  And what is the room contributing to the sound? Hearing dimensionality recovers what we have often trained ourselves to ignore.

Listen to the iconic recording of Chan Chan from the Buena Vista Social Club below.  You can hear the musicians spread out in the space of an old Havana studio once owned by RCA.  The recording, like some live concerts, is a feast of coherent aural information.  To use the old cliche, it seems like we are with these musicians, some of whom remembered when Havana at night was a rival to Miami.

Chan Chan

Provided to YouTube by Believe SAS Chan Chan · Buena Vista Social Club Buena Vista Social Club ℗ 1997 World Circuit ℗ World Circuit Released on: 1997-06-23 Author: Francisco Repilado Composer: Francisco Repilado Music Publisher: SGAE Auto-generated by YouTube.