As a journalist I’ve traveled all over ...the world interviewing celebrities, sports figures, and politicians. During interviews I always ask this question: “what are you listening to?”
I never get the same answer, but I’ve learned that everyone has a lyric that moves them, or a beat that they find achingly familiar. In a fast-paced visual society where the digital landscape is constantly shifting, the intimate act of being touched or moved by a piece of music is an admission of vulnerability and statement about humanity.
Scientists are currently tracking our relationships with music over the course of a lifetime in order to better understand music's power to change the brain and affect the way it works; how it is hard-wired to respond, and to feel. We know from numerous studies that music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human function. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pages of scientific research on music and our cognitive response. This much we know for sure: the brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which gives you a "warm feeling of pleasure.” Another neurotransmitter, serotonin, elevates your mood and makes it easier to focus. This is your brain on music.
Therein lies the power of our Orchestra. Sitting in a chair surrounded by others who have decided to engage in the journey the orchestra will take us on, we may seem stationary, but we are in transit, traversing the world through melody and poetic phrases, translated into sound. Desire is voiced and executed by the soaring peal of a trumpet, while longing tugs at us through the lone hum and cry of an oboe. Accelerating, pulsing of the strings threatens to overwhelm us with their urgency and by the recapitulation we’ve been on a journey—as individuals and as one breathing body. For a moment—and perhaps only one moment, we function as a unit, and we are indivisible.
The Spartanburg Philharmonic is my respite — I come here to feel. I give myself permission to power down the technical side of my brain and make room for a subjective response. My individual journey with the orchestra often evokes strong emotional responses and exposes my vulnerabilities. In the music there is often exaltation, and sometimes joy, but in that same work I can also find isolation, and regret. Ultimately there is reconciliation.
That’s the powerful thing about live music — perhaps it does not give us what we initially sought, but it has the power to reveal what we need — on an intellectual, spiritual and emotional level. Regardless of our backgrounds, current situations, previous musical ability or initial musical interest we converge on this place seeking an experience that will change us, reaffirm us, or validate our experience.
This fact has the power to change the way we talk about music, the way we engage with one another, and enhance our sense of self. Whether the journey occurs with established musicians that seek to trouble the limits of the traditional tonal system, or emerging composers who demand my brain performs a series of mental gymnastics as their work stretches the boundaries of musical theory, forcing me to reexamine my beliefs about art and the essence of the concert-going experience, I always leave a concert with a new perspective.
One conclusion that I’ve come to several times over is that music can be a powerful vehicle to build bridges, connecting us to each other. What we feel in that concert and ultimately what we understand about ourselves and those around us has the potential to change the way we treat one another—as concertgoers, neighbors and ultimately a community. The orchestra, with their disciplined but expressive nature, presents us with an opportunity—nay, a gift, should we be open enough to receive it. The bigger work that remains to be done, perhaps, is making sure that more in our community have access to this resource, so that they can embark upon their own journey.
What can we accomplish locally, nationally, and internationally, if we give ourselves over to the power of music? The world is changing and patrons of the orchestra are growing to fit that change. By the end of a concert, we each have something to say. Let’s start that conversation with music.
Latria Graham is writer, teaching artist and cultural critic currently living in Spartanburg. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, on ESPN, at Elle.com and in Spartanburg Magazine as well as the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. Her interests revolve around the dynamics of race, gender norms, class, nerd culture, music and — yes, football.
You can find out more about her at LatriaGraham.com