Am I a Tuning Fork?

Jul 15, 2019

“This play resonated with me.” What does that mean?  Why does a particular play, painting or piece of music resonate with me, and others do not? The Oxford dictionary defines resonance as, “responding to vibrations of a particular frequency, especially by itself strongly vibrating.” Resonance is what ripples and radiates when something is created. One energetic being influences the vibrations of another.  If something has resonance for me, it typically means that it has a special meaning or that it is particularly important to me. 

Am I a tuning fork and do certain external frequencies create particular vibrations in me?  And do these vibrations then set off a chain reaction?  Do I walk away from a play, a painting or a piece of music better tuned?  When I leave a museum after seeing an exhibition, or when I leave a theater after a performance, am I now tuned to a different frequency? 

A tuning fork is a small two-pronged instrument used to tune instruments by striking it against something to produce fixed musical pitch. The two prongs of the fork are known as “tines.” A sound is produced by a body vibrating in sympathy with a neighboring source of sound. Striking a tuning fork causes its tines to vibrate back and forth several hundred times per second, setting off a tiny, invisible hurricane. The speed of a tuning fork’s vibrations is known as its frequency.  For sound to resonate, it must be deep, clear and strong. In musical terminology, resonance is the reinforcement and prolongation of sound or musical tone by reflection or by sympathetic vibration of other bodies. The way a tuning fork’s vibrations interact with the surrounding air kicks off a chain of impacts that echo through the air and causes sound to form. When the powerful, microscopic collisions of a tuning fork hit the eardrum, the brain processes them as a gentle hum.

We inhabit a vibrational universe.  Everything moves. Nothing rests and everything is energy at a different level of vibration. As our brain cells activate, a vibration is set up in the body. Our cells and organs all pulsate at a particular frequency and are affected by our general state of well-being: our health, our emotions and our breath.  Each of us vibrates to our own particular tune. We can also be out-of-tune.

When I am feeling low, I can put on a piece of music and feel my body and spirits respond and adjust to the new frequencies and temporal patterns. Sound can affect matter. If the force of stimulus in the music is stronger than my weakened inner force, my body adjusts. The feeling of the present moment can be altered by new perceptions and new sensations engendered by listening.  If the force of the stimulus feels too dissonant, the consequence may be disturbing or mildly unpleasant or even excruciatingly painful.

The composer John Cage learned to adapt his listening to the sound of the traffic outside of his apartment building on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. When he decided to change his way of receiving or perceiving the noise, the dissonant sounds of traffic stopped annoying him. The sound rising from the avenue through his window, he discovered, constantly, subtly changes but nevertheless has a sort of homogeneity that he could enjoy.

My connection to the environment influences the experience of being alive. Walking in nature can change the feeling of day-to-day life and rejuvenate the spirit. Scientific studies in Japan show that walking in the woods can decrease cortisol levels, decrease blood pressure and heart rate and reduce anxiety. Developed during the 1980s, “forest bathing,” or Shinrin-yoku, the art of spending time in a forest to reduce stress and encourage a sense of wellbeing, remains one of the cornerstones of Japanese healthcare.

My body’s chemistry can not only be altered by exposure to nature or to music, but it can also be changed in my interactions with other people. Empathic resonance suggests that our nervous systems are not self-contained but are demonstrably attuned to the people around us, especially those with whom we share a close connection.  From earliest childhood, our brains link with those of the people closest to us. We become attuned to each other’s inner states. As I move through the world and interact with others, I tune myself to those I spend time with. When my vibrations resonate with similar vibrations, they harmonize.  For a successful relationship, I have to get on another person’s frequency. If someone is on my wave length or if I am “in tune” with them, resonance occurs.

Limbic resonance suggests that the capacity for sharing deep emotional states arises from the ancient limbic system of the brain. Our brain chemistry and nervous systems are measurably affected by those closest to us and our systems synchronize with one another in a way that has profound implications for personality and lifelong emotional health.  

When I give notes to the MFA directing students at Columbia about their work, I look to set up resonance between us and I can see when this resonance occurs. If I am able to make a comment that hits a chord, I can see just the tiniest bit of moisture arise in their eyes. Not crying, not at all, but resonance happens. A vibration is set off; a chain reaction that I know will endure.

I love to read. I mostly read non-fiction. I read biography, science and history. I read about religion and I read theoretical writing about art and performance. But I also forget a lot of what I have read. I forget the facts and I even forget what triggered the specific insights that happened while reading.  Content seems to slip away. Sometimes I forget that I have even read certain books. This forgetfulness used to bother me. But I now realize that the experiences that happen while reading, the insights and the ensuing emotions are the point. The resonance that happens in the moment of reading ultimately alters the ecology of my mind, my emotions and my assumptions about the world and alters the structure of my brain, establishing new emotional models.  The act of reading tunes me to new channels and changes the patterns and frequencies of my day-to-day life.  Reading has, in large part, made me who I am and who I am becoming.

I used to think that the theater’s power lay in its ability to create powerful memories in the audience and I felt that my objective as a director was to generate lasting memories. But now I have shifted perspective.  I would prefer to create resonance. What should a play or an opera “do?”  What is the sign of a successful production?  Resonance. I want to create experiences that resonate in the bodies and minds of those who are present in the time set aside for the performance. 

I have written previously about how my decision to embark upon a particular project or new venture is not rational but rather is quite often based upon the intensity of the frisson de corps, or goose-bumps, that the idea rouses in my body. Rather than thinking logistically or planning rationally, I try to consider that my body is a barometer. I pay attention to the gradations of reverberations, the resonance that arises when contemplating a new venture.  If I am a tuning fork, the frisson de corps is an expression of the resonance that the prospect of embarking upon this journey awakens my body. Some people may call this sensation nerves. But I would add excitement and enthusiasm. 

I am indeed a tuning fork. When I pick up an infant, my inner chemistry alters, I calm down, I resonate with the child. When I visit a museum and find myself drawn to certain works of art, I feel myself tuning into the particular frequency of the artwork. The deep voice of a singer can resonate within my own body. Looking at certain old photographs that have emotional attachments causes resonance.  Truth resonates. The word resonance suggests the physical act of re-sounding. One’s art can resonate in the world, either with a small number of people or on a larger scale.