herald

Sunday 4 December 2016

Week in Radio: Of songs, science and seizures

Iarla O’Lionaird of The Gloaming
Iarla O’Lionaird of The Gloaming

One of the more refreshing aspects of Vocal Chords — Iarla Ó Lionáird’s new five-part series for Lyric FM — is that it promises to explore “the global story of the human voice” in the company of... guess who?

You’ll never guess! Actually... you probably will.

Other singers (is the answer).

“So what?!” says you. “Who else would he talk to about singing?” says you. “Stop putting words in my mouth!” says you. Sorry.

It was still refreshing though. Why? Because pesky scientist types were refreshingly absent, that’s why.

I mean, you can barely flick on the radio nowadays without hearing some smug neuroscientist sounding off about how his/her team have cracked the code to music and its effect on the human brain. Actually, you can. I’m exaggerating. But only slightly (and possibly not at all).

Anyway, the point (such as it is) is this: I don’t really need to know what particular synapses are firing as music collides with my eardrums. I don’t much care how and why my brain ‘decides’ to crush my resistance by doling out free serotonin (or is it dopamine?) whenever I hear an obnoxiously catchy tune.

When it comes to discussions of music and its relationship to human consciousness, I’m happy for things to remain slippery, speculative and subjective. It’s all a sublime mystery, innit? And if science says otherwise, then I’ll just plug my ears with lumps of blissful ignorance ‘til it goes away.

The dominant vibe of Vocal Chords, episode one, meant there was little need for such ear-plugging. “Why do we sing and what happens to us when we do?” Ó Lionáird asked — eliciting answers that were various, variously interesting, and non-sciencey (technical term, that).

Singer Polina Shepherd emphasised the physicality of song. “It’s our body vibrating and making the sound,” she said. “How much more intimate can you be?”

Composer/singer Meredith Monk focused on the purity and immediacy of “wordless singing” as a “universal language of mankind”, and Ó Lionáird returned, often, to this notion of song as “a common tongue before language divides us”.

We heard snippets of everything from Inuit throat singing to northern European yodelling to traditional Sami ‘joiking’ as Ó Lionáird and guests articulated their own loose thoughts and theories about “noises before meaning” and “sound before singing” and the primal/fundamental power of song.

The responses were — for the most part — eloquent and interesting, but personal and emotional too.

So though the music was gently and lovingly dissected, it was never disenchanted or robbed of its mystery. Just the way I likes it.

For those who prefer their radio more science-flavoured, there was Friday’s Moncrieff and its discussion of FARS (that’s “feline audiogenic reflex seizures”) or (to use its groovier name) “Tom and Jerry syndrome”. “According to new research,” said Moncrieff, “some noises can give your cat

a seizure.”

On the line to explain more, kind of, was researcher Mark Lowrie. “Tom and Jerry syndrome makes more sense than FARS,” he suggested, “we understand that more.”

Except he didn’t appear to understand Tom and Jerry at all, seeming unsure as to whether Jerry was the cat or the mouse and suggesting that every cartoon was about how “Tom becomes scared of mice”.

Eh? Go home science. You’re drunk.

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