You Light Up My Brain

Jun 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Paul D. Lehrman



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So I was washing the dishes after dinner with the TV on. The set in the kitchen is one of those little countertop jobs with rabbit ears and a 2-inch speaker. I flipped to one of the local PBS stations, and to my delight there was Jeff Beck wailing away. Suddenly, he stopped playing, and this…this child with long frizzy hair and a cherubic face was ripping off an absolutely breathtaking bass solo on an instrument almost as large as she was. I was immediately transfixed and damn near broke the plate I was rinsing. I plunked myself down in front of the diminutive tube to watch what I can only describe as a moment of unalloyed, unimpaired, unselfconscious musical joy, hardly diminished in its transmission by the fact that the audio was completely devoid of any of the bass' fundamental frequencies and boasted at least 30 percent harmonic distortion.

If you have seen the second of Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festivals, then you know what I'm talking about. Beck's hour-long set was arguably the highlight of what was — inarguably — one of the best rock 'n' roll concerts in history. Only two of Beck's tunes made it onto the PBS telecast and the Rhino DVD, but they are incredible, and you can find most of the rest on YouTube. After the concert, and especially after the broadcast, the blogosphere was filled with speculation as to who this young woman was. Guesses ran from Beck's daughter to the offspring of former Grateful Dead members Keith and Donna Godchaux, but it soon came out that she is no scion of rock royalty, but merely a ferociously talented 22-year-old from Australia named Tal Wilkenfeld.

Wilkenfeld has been playing music a relatively short time. She grew up in an apparently normal middle-class family, and started playing guitar at the age of 14. Then she did something rather unusual at age 16: She dropped out of high school and moved to L.A. to study and gig. A year or so later, she took up the bass, and before long she had an endorsement deal with Sadowsky Guitars and was playing with the likes of Chick Corea, Susan Tedeschi, Vinnie Colaiuta (who was also in Beck's band at Crossroads) and the Allman Brothers Band. She recorded her own album last year, and it features high-energy fusion and funk, plenty of complicated time signatures and a whole lot of all-star playing. The bass community has gone nuts over her, and some are hailing her as the second coming of Jaco Pastorius. I wouldn't go that far, but she is going to be a force to be reckoned with.

But the main thing that makes it so wonderful to watch and hear her is that she is just having so much damn fun being up onstage and playing music. It's all about the music and the myriad ways it makes her, the people she's playing with, and the people they're playing for, feel. She doesn't seem to notice that she's a young woman playing with a rock god 40 years her senior — she's just playing. And Beck looks utterly delighted to be sharing the spotlight with her. As one longtime fan put it, “I've never seen him play to someone onstage with him before.” Whatever influenced Wilkenfeld to veer off the well-worn path she was expected to follow, it was the right thing to do. There's so much happening up on that stage, on so many levels, that the performance leaves you breathless and begging for more.

Music causes us to respond in many ways, often simultaneously, and sometimes even in contradiction to each other. And it's largely at a nonverbal level — nobody said or sang a word during Beck's entire set. Philosophers and prophets have likened music's power to magic — they have no other explanation for how so much can be communicated between people without words. But as the late Arthur Clarke so succinctly postulated, we consider something to be magic only if our technology isn't sufficiently advanced to understand it. And in the case of humans' response to music, our technology is catching up fast.

There has been a veritable explosion recently of articles and books about how music affects the brain. Books like This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin (who delivered the keynote address at last fall's AES convention) and neurologist Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia have topped the best-seller lists. At the most recent International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition, more than 600 papers were presented. There are currently three-dozen university research centers on four continents devoted to the neuroscience of music and hundreds of other independent scientists working in the field.

What they are finding is no surprise to those of us who work with music every day: Its effect is profound and very, very complex. For one thing, “Music activates the same parts of the brain and causes the same neurochemical cocktail as a lot of other pleasurable activities like orgasms or eating chocolate,” writes Levitin. “Serotonin and dopamine are both involved.” This means that music is similarly addictive and may help to explain why musicians are susceptible to drug problems: They can't be playing 24 hours a day, so they try to find something to fill the void. But that effect is important for nonabusers, too. “Most people in Western society use music to regulate moods, whether it's playing something peppy in the morning, or something soothing at the end of a hard day, or something that will motivate them to exercise,” Levitin says.

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