Song, Sentiment, and Sake

Earlier this week I was chatting with a friend about vernacular music in Japan. The conversation turned to the venerable form enka, a popular genre often likened to country-western music in the US or Portuguese fado. Deceptively simple, highly sentimental to be sure, but beyond the patina of kitsch, there’s plenty of beauty to be found in enka. The singer Misora Hibari is the gold standard for the form, and is happily recognized as such in Japan. Famous for her heart-wrenching performances, she sold 68 million records throughout the course of her career, and in the six months after her death at the age of 52, sales of her recordings multiplied by twenty-five.

Reliably, YouTube has its share of Misora clips, but the one that really kept my attention is from a TV broadcast in 1985, a performance of the song Kanashii Sake (Sad Alcohol). The YouTube clip is from a rebroadcast a few years later, and one of the commentators tells the story of how, even during the dress rehearsal and camera tests, the song would reduce Misora herself to tears. Her emotional outbreak is clearly visible in the video, and even without any real consideration or understanding of the language, only the most stone-hearted could watch this performance and not feel moved.


What brings anyone to crave sadness in art? Emotivists have argued, to quote Peter Manual in his study Does Sad Music Make One Sad? An Ethnographic Perspective that “negative emotional responses do play a central role in the apprehension of much music, that is, that actual sadness is a natural, intentional and essential response to sad music.” Yet Manual’s conclusions—based on survey work done with music listeners, albeit in a distinctly western cultural setting—seem to find otherwise. His research lines up more with “the cognitivist position…that while a musical piece or passage might be expressive of a negative emotion like sadness, the listener’s experience consists primarily not of sadness but of a more generalized state of being moved by the beauty of the music.” For the full article take a look here.

Steven Feld, an Austin-based jazz musician and ethnomusicologist, has studied expressive culture in music and language and has lived among the Kaluli people of New Guinea. He wrote a most interesting book called Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping Poetics and Song in Kaluli Expression. While some music might make us weep, Feld writes about weeping that moves people to song. It’s an ethnographic study of sound as a cultural system, wherein the author reveals sound expressions as embodiments of deep sentiment. The Kaluli live in a tropical rain forest in Papua New Guinea. One of their rituals, gisalo, takes place when one community hosts others coming from afar. The overall atmosphere is meant to be welcoming, with food, animals, pork distribution, even marriages being exchanged. The guests are charged with singing and dancing for their hosts. Yet, according to Feld:

(The guests) dance up and down the hall, singing with the accompaniment of rattle instruments and a chorus. The songs are sung in a plaintive voice, and the texts are sad and evocative, reflecting on loss and abandonment. They cite places and events familiar to all or specific groups of the hosts and are composed with the intention of making the hosts nostalgic, sentimental and sad. The hosts listen intently, identifying with the map that the singers construct by weaving together place names, metaphors, and onomatopoeic devices.

At points in the songs where they become overcome with sadness and grief, the hosts burst into tears and loud mournful wails. This may set off a chain reaction of waling throughout the house.

Then, in a ritual twist, the hosts become angry because of the grief they have been made to feel, and actually attack and inflict burns on their guests, but apparently no hard feelings remain at the end of the night. For the Kaluli generally, what is central is the extent to which the compositions and their manner of performance were effective, as judged by the extent to which they moved the hosts to tears.

It seems perhaps universal to take some pleasure in our sadness through sound, however guiltily we might do so. What “sad” music do you like to listen to, and does it make you feel happily sad, or sadly happy? I’d be curious to know your thoughts.

8 thoughts on “Song, Sentiment, and Sake

  1. sarahcahill

    sad music
    Hi Carl- That’s a great story about the Kaluli! It’s interesting that this video features the kind of poignant plucked strings which you yourself like in the music of John Dowland and the Elizabethan lutenists. And you mention fado: One of the most amazing sad pieces has got to be Cancao Verdes Anos by Portuguese guitarist Carlos Paredes. Also, Marais’ Tombeau de M de Ste Colombe is a classic piece of sad music. Have you seen the Guy Maddin film The Saddest Music in the World? I haven’t, but isn’t it based on a screenplay by Ishiguro?

    Reply
  2. mjleach

    Hi Carl,

    I try to listen too Leonard Cohen every day, which leaves me pleasingly melancholy. Maybe it’s a kind of leavening, since extreme emotions are hard (tiring) to sustain.

    Reply
  3. Kyle Gann

    ….There was a king reigned in the East:

    There, when kings will sit to feast,

    They get their fill before they think

    With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.

    He gathered all that springs to birth

    From the many-venomed earth;

    First a little, thence to more,

    He sampled all her killing store;

    And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,

    Sate the king when healths went round.

    The put arsenic in his meat

    And stared aghast to watch him eat;

    They poured strychnine in his cup

    And shook to see him drink it up:

    They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:

    Them it was their poison hurt.

    - I tell the tale that I heard told.

    Mithradates, he died old.

    – A.E. Housman

    Reply
  4. Dean Rosenthal

    Always On My Mind…
    There’s not too much out there that isn’t sad, but I can always turn to Michael Jon Fink or Evan Ziporyn..

    Reply
  5. rtanaka

    like taking poison in small doses – inoculates and inures us to the sadness that comes in real life. And by extension, sad music.

    This is very much true, I think. Psychologists recommend that you write about your experiences on paper, as a way to reflect upon your experiences, and ultimately, to be able to distance yourself from them. I can honestly say that music has allowed me to work my way out of depressive states at times, which is why I think I’ve developed a strong attachment to it.

    I’m pretty adamant about writing from one’s experience, regardless of style or aesthetic, because it forces you to be totally honest and see yourself for who you really are. And since nobody is perfect, being honest often means having to deal with one’s inadequacies or shortcomings, which can often be unpleasant. But if one believes that change is possible through music, then I think being truthful is the only way of making this happen.

    In the creative writing world, there is a tendency for beginning writers to create characters which are merely idealized versions of themselves. I see this all the time in music too, where ideology often takes precedence over the realism of human fallibility. But both in writing and in music, I find that the willingness to expose one’s vulnerability is what makes art so very powerful — the realization that life itself is imperfect, and the acceptance of it is the only means of being happy.

    Reply
  6. marknowakowski

    Sadness?
    I think “sadness” is a shallow way to classify the effects of certain music. Certainly there are sad songs, but is a piece like Barber’s Adagio really “sad?” Or is it tapping into something more universal, more human, more soul-level — the exisential echoes of eternity (if you will) that allow simple vibrating air to pierce us so deeply? This is the very transcendence that Ives and company spoke of, the movement to a place well beyond “happy” and “sad.”

    Reply
  7. rtanaka

    Of course — human emotions are complex, and I think that the works that leave a lasting impression are the ones that capture certain feelings indescribable in words. But I would say that these things are also rooted in the act of experience. The lyrics of Enka, like the lyrics of many blues songs, would be largely meaningless if the listener wasn’t able to identify with the words being spoken on some level.

    The transcendental aspects of music has been around since very early on (and is a fairly common thing around the world), which is why the act was often associated with acts of congregation and religious ceremonies. Even in talking to modern composers like Cage or Boulez, there is a strong emphasis on the fact that music is supposed to detach you from something, probably referring to the toils of everyday life. In the end, it’s supposed to let us feel elevated from ourselves, I think.

    The drawback of taking this to an extreme is of course, detachment, and a sense of aloofness from the everyday and ordinary. I see a lot of people listening to music on their ipods on the street, for example…it lets them escape from what they might actually be doing in that moment of things, but often at the cost of getting to know the people or the environment around them. As a compromise, though, if you write about your everyday experiences, then it often points things out to you that you never noticed before, or never realized about your surroundings. In this way, it enriches both yourself and the audience that might be observing. I think Ives agrees with me too:

    There can be nothing exclusive about substantial art. It comes directly out of the heart of the experience of life and thinking about life and living life. -C.I.

    Reply

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