Musical Provocation

I listened to a mariachi version of Laura’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago yesterday afternoon, thanks to an email message Gustavo Arellano sent to his followers. Arellano is best known for his “Ask a Mexican” syndicated column that originated with the Orange County, California weekly tabloid, OC Weekly. And he wrote a book entitled Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.

At any rate, Arellano’s email, a semi-regular piece he writes weekly (more or less), reminisced about his mother’s death, about a year ago, and recalled one of her favorite tunes. Among the recollections in his message was a link to a piece of music on YouTube. The piece is entitled “Tema de Lara.” It was performed by Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano. I am more familiar with the English language title: Laura’s Theme.

Arellano admitted to crying, unabashedly, at hearing the music as he thought of his mother. And, of course, as I listened to it, my eyes watered much more than they should have, especially since I do not know Arellano, nor did I know his mother. I’m just an incredibly weepy guy. That should not bother me, because I am not Mr. Macho, but it does. Damnit! You can listen to it here. Should I be embarrassed at my weeping? Yes, but no. But that’s beside the point.

As I sat listening to the music and thinking about Arellano’s sense of loss, I thought of my father and a recollection that my mother told me, shortly after his death, that he had a strong emotional attachment to the hymn, Amazing Grace. I don’t think I ever spoke to my father about religion or his religious beliefs. I do not know what he believed or did not believe. So to learn from my mother that he was especially fond of a piece of religious music surprised me. And I suppose that unexpected revelation had a long-lasting effect on me, a decidedly non-religious guy. Every time I hear Amazing Grace, I think of my father and his affinity for a piece of music that, until after he died, I did not know moved him. Even though I was not especially close to my father, his attachment to that piece of religious music has found its way into my DNA. I, too, am emotionally attached to that hymn. For me, an admitted atheist, to be moved to tears by a religious hymn is odd in the extreme. My emotional reaction to the music have nothing to do with religion, nor do they recall a strong bond with my father. I really do not know from whence they spring; but spring they do. I do not burst into tears when I hear the music, but my eyes tend to water, as if I had a minor allergy to pollen.

I have a similar reaction when listening to Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major. I was surprised this morning, while exploring the history of this particular piece of music, to learn that it was not published (and, therefore, rarely played or recorded) until the 20th century, despite having been composed around 1680-1690. It was written for three violins and continuo (which, as I understand it, means a keyboard instrument such as a harpsichord or organ); today, it has been adapted for and performed by full orchestras. Back to my emotional reaction to the music: in this case, I have absolutely no identifiable “trigger” to which I can attribute my response. Hmm.

As I think about music and my response to it, especially its capacity for causing my eyes to tear, I vaguely recall reading or hearing something about certain musical patterns (I think) that evoke melancholy emotional responses. The idea that sounds can spark emotions intrigues me. I should try to find the source of that information (which may be difficult, in that I am sure my experience in hearing or reading it was several…many, many…years ago). If not the original information, then something more recent. I readily can understand how music can be imprinted on a memory that, in turn, can trigger an emotional reaction; but how can music unattached to an experience do the same thing? I do not know, but I want to find out.

I’ve successfully pulled myself away from the somber, sorrowful path I was, thanks to Arellano’s writing, about to travel this morning. Instead, I seem to be aiming to engage in pointless research into something for which I have no use, other than to satisfy my curiosity. I have mixed feelings about productivity. On one hand, being productive gives me a sense of purpose and merit. On the other, productivity seems to me an artificial measure of one’s value. Value is both a nebulous concept and a quantifiable reality (value is equal to function divided by cost, according to value engineers). I prefer the amorphous definition.

The time is 6:03. I need to replenish my coffee. The cup and its contents have grown cold.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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