The music that makes fools

An informal litmus test for my favorite pieces and moments of music is whether the music bypasses my inhibitions, and liberates me to act like an utter fool while enjoying it. A representative picture of this would be of me driving in my car, suddenly compelled to turn the music up to a deafening volume, crank up the air conditioning to the wind tunnel setting (for a physical rush that matches the emotional), and beat upon my steering wheel in rhythm with the song like a violent primate. Picture me doing this while singing along with abandon at my voice’s loudest register, eyes closed in euphoric bliss (but not enough to endanger myself or other drivers).

This is the portrait of a fool, unashamed, and it is the result in me of the best moments of music. Keep in mind that I am primarily talking about instrumental film music here, which makes the image of my “singing” along all the more profound (disturbing). Realize that this is not necessarily sick beats and infectious electric guitar licks under discussion (although those have their place); a piece need not have a pounding rhythm or arena volume to elicit such a response in me. It is simply the aesthetic and visceral power of really good music that renders me a fool.

An example. I recall several occasions when I enacted this general picture, driving through the urbanized bogs of Florida, listening to the track “The Family Arrives” which finishes off Jerry Goldsmith’s seductive score for The Russia House.

No friend of the saxophone, and an ardent enemy of Kenny G jazz, I am nevertheless entranced here by the improvisational mastery of the instrument by soloist Branford Marsalis. Goldsmith’s pining theme, and the stepwise descent of the accompaniment, is one of my all-time favorites—and in “The Family Arrives” that theme gradually, beguilingly explodes into a fireworks show of syncopated, jazzy glory. During those precious weeks when I was first discovering this score, that finale consistently reduced me to a reveling, unapologetic fool at the wheel.

The sad part is, it’s hard for me to reclaim that all-too-brief window of bliss. I seem to suck all of the marrow off the bone, perhaps even more thoroughly because of these primal fool dances. I go back to these tracks and pieces and moments (which is sometimes literally all they are, a few seconds of sheer musical ecstasy), hoping for that same rush of self-abandoning pleasure—and I find that the little surplus of magic has gone. The back of the wardrobe has been boarded up.

You might say that I live to discover these moments, at least in my life as a music-lover. There’s a lot of music that I like, and a lot of music that I respect (on a technical, artistic, or conceptual level), but I am hungrily on the prowl for that rare dose of music that will clothesline me with its artistic and emotional might, sprawling me out on the proverbial pavement in absolute blind joy. I’m looking for music that removes my manners and self-consciousness, music that makes grown men act like fools.