Monday, March 19, 2007

Happy Music

Music and melancholy go together like Britney and paparrazi. Music's ability to manipulate our emotional states is a fascinating phenomenon, one that speaks to both the biochemistry of the brain and the sweeping grandeur of the human condition.

But why is it that so many happy songs come off sappy and sentimental? Why can't they have the same emotional resonance as sad songs?

The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" is, in my not so humble opinion, the greatest happy song ever. The backstory, however, is very interesting.

I came across it by one of those serendipitous accidents that have enriched my life immensely. I rented a video and the wrong video was in the case. It was a long trek back to the store, so I went ahead and watched this documentary about Professor Ernest Theremin, inventor of the eponymous instrument, an early synthesizer that was played by moving your hands through the radio waves through the frequency oscillators on both sides. It was the first truly electronic instrument and the only you can play without it being touched. You would instantly recognize the sound from any sci-fi film of the 1950s, with its eerie vibrato. "Good Vibrations" characteristic shimmery electronica is not actually a theremin, but a synthesizer tuned to sound like one.

Professor Theremin was a fascinating genius, who was snatched off the streets of New York by Soviet agents and shanghaied into their nuclear program.

But in this movie, the filmmakers interviewed Brian Wilson, one of the world's greatest artists, who talked about his first encounter with a theremin at friends of his parents when he was about 5, who played the instrument and scared the bejeesus out of him. The sound haunted him for years, until he composed "Good Vibrations" as a way to exorcise his childhood demons. Well done, Brian.

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