The camera shows a apartment with cracked and peeling walls, empty except for two old lamps that flicker, only deepening the darkness.
A masked figure pushes a wheelchair into the center of the room, then walks away. Inside sits a young man in a hospital gown, leaning over an acoustic guitar. A title card flashes: “Hi Ren.Looking up, the guitarist begins to rip off a flamenco-style tune, which after a few bars lingers on a bent note before crackling in a series of dissonant arpeggios that rise up the fretboard. The melody line pivots again – now to a simple round of harmonious chords, the stuff of countless folksongs. And then the performer begins to sing…
The next eight minutes defy genre labels, although the song contains elements of hip-hop and punk, plus a bit of yodeling. It is a solo musical theater piece featuring two characters, both called Ren. (The artist is a young Welsh singer-songwriter named Ren Gill.) One of them is a musician, barely recovered after years of a debilitating illness. The other is a personification of his anxiety and self-contempt, with a raspy voice full of needles and poison, which gets the best lines. The characters have contrasting attitudes and even play the same tune differently. It is clear that they have been fighting for a long time. Healthy Ren wants to escape or even destroy his doppelganger, but he remains at a profound disadvantage: you cannot escape your own shadow.
The most popular
A common response to “Hi Ren” seems to be “What am I looking at?” It usually gives way to astonishment and then to more complex emotions. Released in December 2022, the video received two million views in its first month; at the time of this writing, the figure has reached 13 million, all without the benefit of promotion from the majors. That doesn’t count the audience for dozens of reaction videos, which sometimes end with the videographer sitting in stunned silence or in tears. (I came across “Hi Ren” via The charismatic voice, the YouTube channel of an opera singer who comments on the technique of popular artists. She was one of the overwhelmed.)
The release of a new song by Ren a for some time become something like an event celebrated in common. Part of the excitement is backing from an underdog: Now in her early 30s, the performer signed a recording deal with Sony in 2010, only for it to be canceled after succumbing to a self-defeating illness. -debilitating immune system that left him in bed for long periods of time. The source was eventually diagnosed as Lyme disease, but only after spending years receiving doses of psychopharmaceuticals.
But little (if any) of his story was known to those who originally discovered “Hi Ren” and got the algorithmic ball rolling. Musicality, verbal dexterity and performative brilliance are what hit first and hardest. There is also what might be called the shock of recognition. Listeners hear an echo of their own hardest doubts, sung with a growl reminiscent of Johnny Rotten in his heyday.
Music is a nervous action of one remote system on another. It’s admittedly a slanted way of looking at it, but it seems appropriate after reading Larry S. Sherman and Dennis Plies Every Brain Needs Music: The Neuroscience of Making and Listening to Music (Columbia University Press) for a week where I had Ren’s playlist in heavy rotation.
Every Brain Needs Music is a work of popular science based on studies of brain mapping, ideas collected from composers and performers, and the authors’ own experience in the field of musical creation. (Sherman is a professor of neuroscience at Oregon Health and Science University, and Plies is a former professor of music at Warner Pacific University.) The authors examine in detail the incredibly complex connections within the system. nervous involved in the game of a single yet more complex control of the refined motor skills needed to play well, with feel and effect. Illustrators often go unnoticed, but Susi B. Davis makes tracking anatomical connections much easier; all accessories due, then.
The appetite for making and listening to music has deep roots in human prehistory and in our biology as social animals. Archaeologists have unearthed “bone flutes…dating back to 40,000 years ago” in caves once occupied by Homo sapiens. They “are relatively sophisticated”, note the authors, “suggesting that the technology to make them emerged long before these examples were made”.
They are also “relatively advanced instruments, which suggests that they developed from more primitive instruments or musical practices”. Hominid drumming, dinghies and the like probably went on forever before something as fancy as a bone flute was invented. Sensitivity to rhythm and pitch may have been an evolutionary advantage for a species whose younger members remain in a dependent condition long after the hatchlings of other animals have matured: the vocalizations of parents and other caregivers can warn, rebuke or comfort. It seems plausible that the first songs were, in fact, lullabies.
Magnetic resonance imaging and other tools suggest we’re wired to appreciate music. Neurons in the auditory cortex distinguish between music (the elements of rhythm, harmony, etc.) and other sounds. In response, they activate neurons in other parts of the brain, including the limbic system (the basis for emotions and long-term memory) and the basal ganglia (responsible for voluntary movement), as well as the nucleus accumbens (associated with pleasure and addiction).
These processes take place in infinitesimal fractions of a second and include anticipations about the notes that could follow. The brain also distinguishes between major and minor chords, which are then “processed by different areas of the brain outside of the auditory cortex, where they are assigned emotional significance.” Minor chords or scales are usually felt to be dark or melancholy, while their main shapes can sound bright or joyful. (Or at least vigorously: death metal guitarists play them.) And then there’s the beat which, “when detected and held, activates neural circuits involved in motor processing, suggesting that there may be circuits direct connections between the centers of rhythm and the centers of movement in our brains.”
These are, so to speak, factory-installed settings, with vastly improved functionality for people who are dedicated to the study and practice of music. The researchers determined that the brains of musicians have structural differences from those of non-musicians, including increased volume in the auditory cortex and areas involved in motor control. A study of pianists who had been playing since the age of 6 determined that “the number of hours of practice during childhood was positively correlated with increased measures of myelination”, which increases the brain’s ability to coordinate movements, absorbing sensory input, and connecting his left and right hemispheres.
Some of the musicians responding to the authors’ questionnaires seem aware of the neurobiological significance of their art. “When I practice something,” a saxophonist and singer told them, “I know I’m creating, altering, or strengthening neural pathways.” Another “wrote that the practice is ‘like creating a new road’ in her brain: ‘first it’s wilderness, then rough (dirt, gravel, potholes), then smoother, then finally a solid highway'”.
All of this is very effective as an advertisement for the benefits of practicing one’s instrument – or picking one up, even late in life.
Left unexplored is the puzzle of musical variety, including differences in the appeal or intelligibility of a given composition. An almost inconceivable range of rhythms, timbres, tunings, etc. can be identified as musical by the neurons in the auditory cortex responsible for making this determination. One brain can be deeply captivated by a piece of music while another responds by immediately pointing the fingers towards the ears. A third party might not record sounds like music at all.
The authors cover a lot of ground, and I don’t blame them for neglecting that. But focusing on the common foundation of musical experience – the fundamental processes that make it possible – reinforces a sense of how many different ways it can resonate through human beings. world of life.
And there are times when an artist transforms the noise in people’s heads into something with form and substance. Two generations have now grown up in a state of rolling personality crisis in contemporary mental health care. A new pill is proposed to manage the side effects of another pill, prescribed to manage emotional difficulties that no one seems to have time to deal with. It’s a common, if intensely private experience, and Ren is the bard of it.
It’s not just that he sings difficult episodes, or even that he can express mood swings on guitar through a perfectly fractured melodic line. As Sherman and Plies suggest, the musician’s brain, when highly developed and aware of its own potentials, can connect with the listener’s at levels where language does not. It was perhaps this experience that inspired Nietzsche to write: “Without music, life would be a mistake.