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Sad songs and a singing apprenticeship

The pleasure of listening to sad music fascinates researchers. Studies have been designed that measure our heart rate, our breath and our skin temperature as we listen. Traits and states that pre-dispose us to respond to sad music have been identified. There is a particular interest in chills and goosebumps. Some argue that this paradox proves the existence of non-functional ‘aesthetic emotions’. But I am sceptical. New brain sciences are disrupting traditional models of emotion and cognition. I am far more attracted to the argument that our thoughts and feelings are contextual, emergent, motivated and conditioned, and that even transcendent feelings have an adaptive purpose.

Sad songs are more than the sum of their parts, much more than a combination of irreducible sound objects, like the wordless fragments designed for clinical studies. Songs mirror our innate tendencies, from involuntary entrainment to rhythm to the delicious jolt of the unexpected. Our voices exploit the unconscious simulation that occurs when we observe each other’s expressions and gestures. Shared narratives have the power to draw our imaginations out beyond the limit of our own experience. All of these processes aim to unlock the memories and emotions of listeners and make the shared moment more immediate, more genuine.

Performance exploits the underlying processes of body, mind and emotion.

Imagine that you’re standing in the wings of a concert hall. The lights are playing across the stage in pretty colours. The hall itself is like an expensively upholstered cave, a plush cathedral. You sneak a look out at the crowd. Row after row, sitting shoulder to shoulder, faces turned to the stage. Onstage are a group of musicians who know their job, some harmony singers as well. You can rely on them implicitly. At the perfect moment, you set off across the stage. The follow spot finds you and now you can’t see the room anymore, just the microphone and some peripherals, the balconies and the wings. You feel a sudden surge of excitement as you arrive at the microphone. You’re trembling, heart pounding, blood surging, your breath judders with the chemical hit of high arousal. You plant your feet, lift your face to the light and breath out. Slowly, you smile and sweep the room with your eyes, pretending you can see all the faces out there in the blackness. In response the audience rustles, giving off warmth. It feels like tinder set to burn in a fireplace. Each person has brought their own small fuel to add to the fire. Here they are, all together, ready to light up. You have one central function. You are the match.

What happens next is more archetypal than technical, because every performer deploys their gifts in their own way. When I sing a sad song, I don’t think about notes and breathing. In fact, I don’t think at all. A yearning to make the audience cry is very deeply ingrained in me. I grew up listening to sad songs with my mother. She would play her favourite records over and over. I could sense the relief it gave her. I could feel that relief too, a sensation of warmth and ease in my body. To elicit that same feeling in the audience, I seek to blur the boundaries between us. I hope people will imagine that theyare the narrator in the song and that my voice is their voice. So, my musicological research has been an investigation on how I learned to evoke emotions through songs.

My first lesson as a performer was that the pleasure of sad songs is even more intense when I am the one singing the song. I made my performance debut in 1974 at the age of thirteen, singing in a talent quest at Garden City Shopping Centre. When I entered the competition, I ran home to tell Mum, expecting that she would be proud of me. But she was shocked. She spun around and cried out that she couldn’t come to watch me, because it was going to be terrible. Inexplicably, her fear of public shaming did not daunt me. On the day of the competition I presented myself to the accompanist in my second-hand dress and bowl haircut with my Allan’s sheet music for ‘The Carnival Is Over’ in the wrong key. Once I started to sing, it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. My self-consciousness melted away. The story came to life without effort. I belted easily through the high notes. And I won a cash prize. It was a revelation that I stored away, not knowing when I might be able to make use of it.

A few days later, Mum sat down with me at the table and told me that someone in our street had been up at the shopping centre and heard me singing. She didn’t look right at me, but just to one side of my head. Her voice was an arresting blend of amusement and alarm, “Mrs Curtis said they could hear you all the way down to ‘Mac and Easts’.”

A decade later, I was established in a share house in West End, taking my first steps in a progression from rough-cut feminist agitprop to solo sets at comedy clubs. Over time, as I met more musicians, my accompaniment gradually became more secure, more professional. Untrained, I had always been able to feel the beat and hear the key. But now I started to recognise the forms and feels. I started singing with very skilled musicians. Whatever song I chose they would enhance. They could squeeze more drama and emotion out of the music at every level, from the deep roots of rhythm and harmony to the surface detail of ornaments. A world of choice opened up. It took years, but by my late twenties singing had become my vocation.

On the way to becoming a professional singer, I learned a second lesson: that there were things about performance that I could and could not control. I could depend on the pleasure-giving properties of songs. Musical elements, feels, keys and tempos, could be tailored to my strengths. I could play an entertaining double game with the audience, dressing-up in vintage evening gowns for impact, and still claim I was being ironic. But there was a good deal I couldn’t control. We can never see ourselves as others do. Performance is a drastically lop-sided experience of managing others’ expectations and judgements. There was only one of me, but lots of them, all with their own idea of what was going on. So, the central task was to corral them into a shared state. This is a conjuring trick can never be assured. We don’t even have complete control over how our voices inhabit the songs we choose. When we get it right, the audience are generous, but when we choose the wrong song, they are cold, even hostile. Especially the relatives of the bride. I learned by trial and hideous error that I am not a wedding singer.

Early on, I sang a song in a feminist revue at a shabby old hall in Paddington. I stood up on a wooden box in the posture of the Virgin, draped in bedsheets, haloed by the light. My heart was beating violently, my breath ragged, my fingertips tingling. Still new to amplification, I was astonished to hear my voice fill the room, “You don’t own me, I’m not just one of your many toys…” The audience murmured with recognition and approval. When I slurred up into the second modulation, I threw off the bedsheets to reveal my buzzcut head and flannelette shirt, and that’s when I knew, without a doubt, that I’d picked the right song.

My third lesson in performance was recognising how songs speak to one another. The tension and flow between a set of songs has potential to generate something greater than the sum of its parts. When this bigger narrative meshes with a singer’s sound, their look, their physicality and their self-story, it can seem to distil the complexities of human experience.

My personal method for song selection narrowed down to a simple formula over time. I try to make the audience laugh, cry and think. In that order. First, I use gentle forms of teasing to generate amusement and earn their trust. Then I build the pace, song by song until a climax feels inevitable. This is where the three lessons of my craft come together. If lose myself in the song, the audience may feel that the story of the song is my story, and that this story is the optimal outcome of everything that came before. At this point, if they take the ride, there are likely to be tears. Afterwards we share a post-climactic philosophical moment and pull ourselves back together.

To my mind, this is the pleasure of sad songs: to have a shared experience of strong emotion, blissfully free of consequence. Sad songs let me know I share something deeply human with others, that I’m not alone. I honestly cannot see how this could ever be measured in a laboratory.

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