Henry Leacock

May 8, 2011

Innate Fear

Filed under: Music — Henry @ 2:04 pm

They say fear of loud noises is one of the most innate.  Just take fireworks for example.  How many infants do you see out at the 4th of July festivities, and of those few how many aren’t screaming their heads off.  Take another example, thunderstorms.  Even our pets will cower in fear during a storm, let alone one with big thunder boomers.  I for one get nervous on occasion but am not saying that we are in any direct relation or descendance to or from K-9’s.  I’m emphasizing that, yes loud noises affect us on some primal level.

Let’s look at another example; tornado sirens.  Now, I know you midwesterns are with me on this one.  It’s tornado season, and when the conditions are right and you hear those sirens it’s not a pleasant event.  But what do we do when we hear those sirens?  We duck for cover.  And, considering recent cases in the midwest this has proven to be a life saving reaction.  Yes, taking cues from an emergency audio signal can be life saving in more ways than one.

“In more ways than one?  How so?”  you ask.  Good question.  Here is an ellaboration.

Let’s take the siren example.  Sirens are loud.  They are loud as hell and rightly so.  They have to alert people at great distances that some shit is about to go down and that they better get out of the way or be ready to face the consequences.  What do we do when we hear a fire truck?  We pull over to the side of the road, and hopefully we also plug our ears with our fingers when the truck goes past so that we don’t incur hearing damage, but that’s another story.

What’s more curious is that we now include sirens in our music.  And not just wimpy sirens, but sirens loud and noisy enough to provoke fear in the listener.  Strange, why would anyone enjoy a piece that provokes fear?  What is the purpose of provoking fear in an audience?  Steve Reich includes sirens in his piece Different Trains.  As the child of divorced parents living on opposite coasts, Reich spent many hours, days even on cross country train trips with his nanny.  His inspiration coming from the juxtaposition of what a train ride would have been like had he, being jewish, spent those days on a train at the same time only located across the globe in Germany.  The passages including sirens in the piece paint a fearful portrait of a train ride, that when compared to a less oppressive ride, sans sirens, evokes sympathy, confusion, anger and fear amongst other powerful emotions within the listener.

Are these reactions as life saving as those elicited by a tornado siren or a fire truck?  What Reich has done is remove the siren from it’s practical application as a warning device to a more theoretical or symbolic application, and the question that I am posing is, has the siren lost any of it’s meaning in translation?  The answer I propose, no it has not lost it’s meaning, is my explaination of why modern works such as Reich’s Different Trains are relevant and life giving and life preserving.

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