Musical Oxytocin

Yesterday I watched a TED talk on the power of storytelling from a scientific standpoint.

As I watched, the evening’s upcoming concert was not far from mind. Music, to me, is a different form of storytelling, and I suspected that many of the same factors mentioned in this video are in play.   A little research this morning showed I was not wrong.  On the topic of oxytocin (the “love hormone”), this article had this to say:  a study suggested that “…. music directly impacts oxytocin levels, which, in turn, affect our ability to trust and act generously toward others—factors that increase our social connection.”  The same article also mentioned that “music has been shown to activate many areas of the brain, including the circuit that helps us to understand what others are thinking and feeling, and to predict how they might behave—a social skill scientists call “theory of mind,” which is linked to empathy.”


As I sat yesterday in Roy Thompson Hall, waiting for the concert to begin, I spent my final half hour unexpectedly not perusing the program or watching the orchestra assemble, but grappling with and writing about a painful dilemma-on my phone.  This situation does not concern me personally, but I have a role in seeing that the right thing, as far as humanly possible, is done. The issue is that as it stands currently, it is not at all clear what “the right thing” is. The line between fact and interpretation is not clear. There are strong opinions and accusations on two sides, with the potential for a gaping wound of hurt to widen and rend the fabric of something I care deeply about.  There are a lot of assumptions about knowledge known and not known, and an undercurrent of dissent that is bubbling to the surface if one knows where to look.  And, as it turns out, I apparently have an instinct for reading these undercurrents, which I have been feeling in veiled words and inferences for some weeks now.  I am not as clueless as perhaps I would wish sometimes.  So, a Rubicon of a sort was crossed yesterday.  And, as a result, rather than relaxed and eager to hear a long-awaited concert,  my brain was likely full of adrenaline and cortisol, what the video above calls “the devil’s cocktail.”  Anger. Frustration. More frustration. Ineffectiveness. Isolation.


I’ve joked before about the universe knowing what it’s doing. It really does. Or maybe I am simply good at finding what I need in what is placed in front of me.

As I wrote in yesterday’s piece, the Shostakovich 2nd Cello Concerto is not an easy work.  Part of this is the essential nature of the cello itself as a bass clef instrument:  it lends itself, in my opinion, most to mystery and a sense of longing or loss, a turning inward, a focus on the soul, the foundations of life.  Even in moments of joy, with the cello there is always an undercurrent of darkness.  And part of it is the nature of this particular work itself.  So often in this work Shostakovich layers the tonal atop the chromatic, or vice versa, lending an atmosphere of instability and restlessness.  There are no easy answers or expected outcomes in this piece.


As the chairs were reorganized after the first piece, I noticed how relatively lost on the vast stage of Roy Thompson Hall the reduced orchestra seemed to be.  I was up in the front of the balcony, and that presented yet more of a sense of distance between me and the players. Soloist Alisa Weilerstein then entered, wearing a stunning red dress, the only splash of colour on the stage.

The concerto started with the cello playing alone, a dark, yet simple chromatic melody in the lower registers.  It was if Weilerstein was alone, utterly alone, despite the orchestra and audience surrounding her. Gradually, as the music developed, the orchestra joins in.  Soloist and orchestra eventually weave together so tightly that cellist is never truly alone again until the very end.  Even what passes for a cadenza in the work s accompanied by (of all things) a tambourine. Yet the concerto is full of space, whether it be full-stop pauses or sparse orchestration.  Roy Thompson Hall definitely augmented that sense of space in a way that was not always pleasing. It was probably partially due to the less-than-full house for three 20th century works.

What Weilerstein added to the work was partially the visual aspect–to me, what makes live performance so special.  Watching her play revealed just how difficult this piece is for the performer, despite having only a few passages of traditional virtuosity.  Harmonics, pizzicato (some plucked with her left hand), glissandos, chords and unusual bowing techniques, some thrown together in extremely quick passages–she made them all look effortless, but I’m a person familiar with stringed instruments, and so parts of it were breathtaking. I’ve also seldom seen a soloist so synced up to the cues of the conductor;  it was clear that she was, in many ways, part of the orchestra as much as being a soloist.  I mentioned in my previous note that I always find something surprising in a live performance of a Shostakovich work, and this was it precisely: this work really benefits from the visual component of performance and the addition of the body language of the cellist.  The one downside is that occasionally she was so much part of the orchestra that she was subsumed by it–I sometimes felt she was struggling to keep her head above water, so to speak.  I wonder how much of this was the fault of the cavernous hall. I completely lost the trilling portion of the initial repeating figure of the third movement, for instance–it simply could not be heard.  Lesson learned, perhaps–I seem to find floor seats more conducive to hearing soloists than mezzanine or balcony seats.

I also learned what an orchestral whip looks like.  I knew no one was going to go over at the side of the stage and crack a full-sized whip, and I didn’t think someone was thwacking someone else with a riding crop, either. Either of those would be rather, uh, distracting.  So what would it look like? What was used last night were two thin blocks snapped or clapped together.  It looks like this.

I realized towards the end that I had really lucked out to be able to get to see the more “obtuse” of the two Shostakovich cello concerti performed by a soloist who clearly understands and loves the piece. Once again, I was surprised a bit by the positive reaction of those around me.  “What an interesting piece!” said the older guy two seats down after its enigmatically quiet end.

And I realized, driving home, that it had brought my own mind back to a clearer place as I pondered the issue before me.  I know now the path that I will follow, difficult as it may be, as I was able to reconnect logic and my own complex emotions, thinking more clearly and with empathy.  I have not solved anything–far from it.  But the internally-directed anger and frustration is dissipating. We all do the best we can with the information we have.  There is no disgrace to that.  But there is no end to seeking the truth, and love is not always cuddly and easy to understand.

It was just what I needed.