This is Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia. Those pieces of music that bore into the brain and then play relentlessly away Sachs refers to as ‘brainworms’, and I am especially prone to them. Even a piece of music I like can become hateful to me after several days of listening to it on a non-stop mental loop. If it’s a piece of music I hated to start off with, I feel my sanity threatened. I once had at least a week of hearing Marie Osmond bleating ‘Paper Roses’ at all hours of the night and day. Well, you can imagine. It’s worse than having noisy neighbours, because there is nobody you can complain to, and auto-decapitation is hard to arrange and unfortunately irreversible.
Sacks describes cases in which his patients heard their brainworms loudly and in detail, as if they were listening to CDs. This happened to my grandfather towards the end of his life, and he would enquire as to the source of the music he was hearing, not realising it was audible only to him. My grandma was pretty sure it was being channelled from the Other Side.
‘E keeps earin church organ music!’ she would exclaim. ‘Ims an stuff. It bleddy flays* me, does that.’
She took it as a portent that the double doors of the horizon were about to be unbolted for him, and she wasn’t wrong, at least about the imminence of the event.
The music of Philip Glass is particularly apt to leave lingering after-images in my head. For about two months now I have been playing little other than his opera Akhnaten, and internally, I hear the choral section of the wonderful ‘Hymn to the Sun’ day and night, over and over. Oddly, even two months of this particular brainworm has not diminished the pleasure I experience on hearing the piece, and the CDs have not yet joined those dust-gatherers that I couldn’t bear to hear ever again. (Orff's Carmina Burana, The Rachmaninoff 2nd Piano Concerto and almost anything by Ute Lemper.) First, in the sidebar 'music box' is the Prelude to Akhnaten. This is another piece of brainworm material for me, endlessly repeated in alternation with the 'Hymn to the Sun', which is the second track. Technically I am a complete ignoramus where music is concerned, but I do totally see what John Richardson is saying here in his book on Akhnaten, Singing Archaeology:
The music of the prelude is pieced together brick by brick before the listener’s ears; it is as if the master carpenter of the theatre sat at the front of the stage, saw in hand, and continued to build the scenery even after the show had begun, or if the actors were to finish putting on make-up on stage… As clarinets join violas in a repetitive and softly undulating arpeggio pattern, a visual analogy comes to mind: the gentle ripples of the River Nile dancing playfully under the rays of the hot afternoon sun.
Yep, exactly! Just what I had imagined as I listened. But then he feels forced to add:
As I write these words, [about the dancing ripples] I sense the peremptory finger of formalist musicology wagging vigorously at me... A cold shiver runs down my spine, and I rush to defend myself.That’s your problem, matey. I don’t have formalist musicology breathing down my neck, so I’m quite free and happy as I listen to design my own stage production in which we see the funerary barque of Amenhotep III crossing the glittering river from east to west. I don't expect Richardson would approve of this, because:
…an anti-authorial voice of sorts is suggested strongly throughout the prelude…the explicit purpose of which is to deflect any ontologically grounded scraps of content listeners might think they are perceiving in the musical text.
Well, bollocks to that.
There's enough of incisive analysis. Have a listen to the Prelude. I defy you not to see the hot sunlight dancing on the ripples of the Nile.
I read somewhere that if you suffer from musical brainworms, the best vermifuge is to take the homeopathic approach and play the tune over and over until the brain gets so utterly pig-sick of it that it deletes the offending mental file. Yeah, well. I can't imagine voluntarily playing Marie Osmond singing 'Paper Roses' (or anything else) even once, let alone ad deliberate nauseam. And anyway, pace my two good friends who swear by homeopathy, it's total horsefeathers.
* To flay is 'to scare' in Yorkshire dialect. Flaid is 'afraid' and flaysome is 'scary'.