Miller, Quirt bring truly unique show to Festival - Sept. 6, 2018
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Years ago, MuchMusic (now simply Much) used to air an original show called Intimate and Interactive, which focused on live, intimate (surprise) performances that invited audience participation.
Canada’s answer to MTV Unplugged was viewed as a high-water mark for musical performance, but on the dramatic stage, “intimate” and “interactive” are two words many audience members have been loath to hear.
Jane Miller’s These Are The Songs I Sing When I’m Sad brought both of those concepts to the Phillips Studio last week in a performance truly unlike any the Blyth Festival has ever produced.
Those were the words of Artistic Director Gil Garratt in the days leading up to Songs’ five-show run last week. He would know and he was right.
With equal parts performance, concert, round-table discussion and musical master class, Miller takes audience members on an emotional and musical journey unlike any they’ve been on before.
The show “began” at Memorial Hall as audience members were led to the Phillips Studio, entering as Miller was already seated and playing her piano.
The audience – limited to 25 people per performance – was then seated in a small circle of chairs around Miller and her piano to create a truly intimate environment.
The simple, intimate space is thanks to the direction of co-creator Brian Quirt, artistic director of Nightswimming Theatre and director of the Banff Centre Playwrights Lab.
Miller first focuses on the science behind music, specifically sad music. She invokes a number of studies that focus on reactions from both the body and the brain when a person listens to sad music.
The science is fascinating. Miller discusses a 2012 Wall Street Journal article that builds on a 20-year-old British study of sad music that yielded 20 tear-jerking numbers, identifying that 18 of the 20 contained a little-known musical element called an appoggiatura.
Described in the article as an “ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound”, an appoggiatura very literally triggers a reaction in many listeners. When the melody deviates, but then returns, a psychologist quoted in the story said it creates a feeling of “resolution” with the listener.
“Chills often descend on listeners at these moments of resolution,” the article states. “When several appoggiaturas occur next to each other in a melody, it generates a cycle of tension and release. This provokes an even stronger reaction, and that is when the tears start to flow.”
Miller then transitions from discussing the brain to the body and how these reactions in the mind trigger reactions in the body. Sad music can evoke goosebumps and increased heart rate and perspiration; those reactions then lead to the release of dopamine back in the brain, causing pleasure, bringing the process full-circle.
Songs, of course, isn’t simply a round-table discussion on the effects of sad music. The talented and accomplished Miller is singing throughout the performance and audience members can’t help but feel privileged to hear a performance by such an elegant, beautiful vocalist from just feet away.
The space is made to feel even more intimate due to the subtle, yet effective lighting changes throughout the show by Festival veteran and Dora Mavor Moore Award winner Rebecca Picherack.
Throughout the show, Miller shares personal stories, both hers and those of friends, highlighting go-to sad songs choices, spanning artists like Adele, The Beatles, Don Henley, Phil Collins, the Barenaked Ladies and Mavis Staples.
Often Miller is downright funny, leading audience members to wonder if Sad Songs as a title is a bit of a misnomer. However, those who packed their tissues for the night were not disappointed. She is engaging throughout, whether she’s the focus of attention or if she’s highlighting the musical inclinations of an audience member.
Open and vulnerable with the audience, Miller touches on the sad times in her life and how she connected with specific pieces of music during those times. Creating such an environment, when Miller asks audience members for their sad song choices, it can be heartbreaking as you see fellow audience members wrestle with their own traumatic memories and what that music means to them.
The result of these discussions is a playlist, tirelessly compiled by one of Miller’s assistants and then made available after the show at sadsongs.ca.
While this is an interesting exercise in revisiting the songs mentioned during your show (thanks to my esteemed colleague Denny Scott, Meat Loaf is now officially on the list for our show – he assures me this is with good reason, though I have my doubts), reading over playlists from previous shows is even more interesting, with no two shows alike. The shows – and subsequent playlists – are truly shaped by those sitting around Miller on any given night, rather than Miller herself.
For instance, we went to the show last Wednesday for the second show of the run and our playlist will include (in addition to the aforementioned Mr. Loaf) songs by Nine Inch Nails, The Pogues, Michael Jackson and Paul Simon, as well as an old Scottish bagpipes tune, “Mairi’s Wedding”, to name a few. On Tuesday, opening night, the playlist includes music by Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Eric Clapton and Hank Williams, among others.
Garratt promised something unlike anything the Festival had ever seen and Songs delivered on that promise. You can forgive audiences for fearing the unknown and wondering exactly what they were in for with Miller’s and Quirt’s creation, but those who stayed away as a result missed something great.
Between Nightswimming’s truly experimental effort and the sold-out return of the Steps & Stairs Theatre Company’s The Downs, this will be a year to remember for the Blyth Festival’s offerings at the Phillips Studio.