A Moment of Frisson

First off, hat tip to Musette for her fabulous post on Bill Evans last week – she introduced me to Bill just a few weeks ago and he’s been the soundtrack around here ever since.  Second, it’s snowing.

I’m guessing many (most?) of the folks reading this are frissoniers – people for whom a particular sound, a set of notes, a vista, and of course a scent (or a combination thereof) experience delightful goosebumps and a feeling of rapture, or something similar.  I’d assumed everyone did, and I feel a bit sad for those who don’t (a fair percentage of the population, apparently, which makes me wonder if it’s been properly studied.)

Frisson, also known as aesthetic chills or musical chills, is a psychophysiological response to rewarding auditory and/or visual stimuli that often induces a pleasurable or otherwise positively-valenced affective state and transient paresthesia, sometimes along with piloerection and mydriasis.  (Wikipedia)

Music is, I’m guessing, the gateway drug for frisson.  Sometimes it’s a simple, quiet set of notes, sometimes it’s the building up, like watching snow fall and build into something fantastic.  I’ve been knocked sideways in concert halls and in my car.  One of the masters at this crescendo and release is probably Ralph Vaughan Williams (The Lark Ascending came on the radio earlier) although I go easy with him, it’s like eating a whole pie if I do it too often and it loses its thrill.  At the other end of the bombast spectrum is, of course, Bill Evans, who can be just as heartbreaking.

I mentioned that right now it’s snowing.  We don’t get a ton of snow here in the mid-Atlantic, but when it happens it’s absolutely lovely.  That … pause, that quiet, the way it smells beforehand, the faint hiss against the windows and the blur around the street lamp outside my window in the dark.  (I’m laughing, I gave myself chills just typing that.) Then there’s a certain kind of soft rain on a day in April, gentle droplets on the tulips in the yard, the first day I can go outside in it and not feel cold.  Gets me every time.  In summer, we tend to get our biggest thunderstorms in the late afternoon and evening, after they’ve built over the course of a miserably hot and humid day.  I’d be at work downtown, and we’d all be checking the weather, deciding if we needed to make a break for home early so as not to get caught in it.  I love a close call, coming out of the subway, still ten minutes’ walk from home, with the thunder ominous and threatening just to the west, and the wind whipping around wildly, and the faint smell of petrichor.  It’s a delightful feeling to just make it home, change my clothes, and then slip out onto the front porch to watch the show – rain coming down in sheets, flashes of lightning, thunderclaps so loud they almost hurt.  A moment of frisson I believe I share with my mother; I grew up without air conditioning in this hot climate, and my mother loved thunderstorms in summer, she’d throw open all the doors and windows and welcome it like a beloved (if badly behaved) guest dropping by for a surprise visit.

Santorini? My best guess.

The most sustained sense of frisson for me is travel in another country, which I cannot wait to do again.  I still don’t know exactly why my trigger gets tripped, which is part of the allure – it’s a combination of the senses, the sight and the sound and the smell and the feel of a place.  Off the top of my head: trips to Edinburgh and the Cinque Terre left me in a constant state of sensory mania (much of Italy, actually, although curiously enough not Venice, which is ridiculously beautiful but somehow never really grabbed me in the feels.)  Bits of London and Paris, of course.  The best I can parse it is that, for me (sample of one) it’s … an urban thing?  The countryside could be stocked with gorgeous cows and amazing wine and cheese and populated by angels and it just doesn’t do it for me, whatever “it” is, not like I feel rounding a corner in a random city like Florence and finding myself at a dead stop, standing on the cobblestones and staring while my brain thrums and my skin is alive and tingling.

So, what sets you all a-tingle?

  • gwenyth says:

    Thanks so much, March. I love your writing because you have the talent/ability to capture in words the intrinsic nature of experiences and locations and scents — so many things we all share as humans in this world.

    And….I ADORE Ralph Vaughan Williams. He was a magnificent composer because he knew the beauty of the human spirit – it’s tragedy, magnificence, pastoral tranquility – and was able to impart all of those essences in the music he wrote.

    As Dina wrote, there is something amazing which can happen with music, whether it be through singing, playing or listening. Music cuts through all the layers present in the conscious mind and goes directly to the deepest part of us.
    Music very often makes me weep – with joy or pathos equally – and I cherish those moments for the beauty in them.

    I will never forget the first time I smelled L’Heure Bleue because it was an experience that shook me to my core. I had ordered a bottle blindly because I was newly into a perfume journey and the idea of ordering online (yes this was many years ago). The package arrived and I eagerly opened it to sniff the highly regarded L’Heure Bleue. Upon sniffing the first spray, tears welled up in my eyes and I began to weep. This had NEVER happened to me and I was overcome. My reaction was surprising and totally unexpected. That rush of emotion, completely triggered by scent, was a revelation to me.

    Because of your post today, I’ve been able to recall some truly wonderous experiences I’ve had. I am so grateful for living and being able to experience the unmistakable beauty, longing, joy, wonder, and amazement — that Frisson — which can come to us when we experience places, art, music, scent, and sounds.

  • Dina C. says:

    For me, that frisson leads to tears of joy. I sing in a choir, and there are certain chord progressions with the voices and combination of lyrics that just transport me and thrill me. Many a time I’ve sung with a couple tears rolling down my face because of the joy of it. Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man is an instrumental piece that stirs my soul. Live theatre performances often leave me in tears whether the storyline is happy or sad. I sob through it all (haha) because I connect with it so much. Especially seeing shows with my daughter and/or mom, who are the same way. I feel a major frisson whenever I visit Broadway. Driving thru back country roads and coming upon a beautiful view: upstate New York in the fall, Virginia in spring, the Outer Banks seashore.

  • Queen-Cupcake says:

    Standing at the top of the highest run at Bretton Woods ski hill, looking down on the red tile roof of the Mt. Washington Hotel and across the valley.

    Hearing music, old or new, for the first time. Like the first time I heard the late Tomasz Stanko, a jazz trumpet player.

    Remembing the toboggan ride at Chestnut Ridge (Erie County, NY) park with my dad and siblings.

    First ever sniff of Jolie Madame, a Christmas present, in 1968.

    And now, thanks to the Posse, I have so many more things to experience–or at least, think about.

    We now have about 8 inches of snow and it is still coming down.

    Peace and love

  • greennote says:

    Chord changes – 100%.
    Venice. C’mon guys, the only city built on the water, it’s amazing, fantabulous, fantastic.
    Frisson – art that speaks to me, words that speak to me. But particularly art, discovering Pompon’s sculptures, Frans Hals, and multiple microseconds of astounding beauty in so many places

    • March says:

      “Multiple microseconds of astounding beauty in so many places” — I think it’s the “unexpected” ones that can blow me away, those microseconds. I fully expect to be awed by some places/monuments/artwork. The vignettes or musical moments that come at me as a surprise, though… some of my most memorable.

  • Portia says:

    OOOH March! What a wonderful post.
    SO MUCH!
    Some music does, a good power ballad can get me goosebumped and tearful, the symphony or the ballet can be exhilarating. Give me Mahler for full frisson.
    Connecting with art is really rare for me but when it happens, BOOM!
    Travel, especially those unexpected moments that take your breath away. Quite often the moments happen during or after a meal with friends in some foreign place. Suddenly I am overwhelmed with gratitude and love. Wandering streets after a good meal in the cool of evening we always seem to come across spots that spark a joyful frisson yet rarely look as wonderful or special in photos, the instantaneous delight leaves but the memory of it remains.
    As dumb and boring as it sounds, about 5-10% of the time I spend with Jin is like that. Sensory overload of happiness, gratitude, awe of beauty, love and laughter.
    I ramble.
    Portia xx

    • March says:

      That sensory overload w Jin …. how lovely. I think I get a slightly different facet of that deep love, with my children? Different, obviously, but random moments where we’re doing something fun or silly or just hanging out and it washes over me like music.

    • Musette says:

      P – your mention of ballet reminded me of the first time I saw Maestro Balanchine’s ‘Jewels’ in person. There’s a moment in ‘Diamonds’ that is transcendent. I remember nearly falling out of my seat at the beauty of it! xoxoxo

  • Cinnamon says:

    Beautiful post. Things that have made the hair on the back of my neck rise. The view from Brooklyn Heights promenade of Manhattan. Every. Damn. Time. When I was in secondary school MOMA was free and I’d go over after school to see Guernica before it moved back to Spain. Seeing Judith Jameson dance in an Alvin Ailey performance. Def travel. Two summers ago we went to a tiny island 50km north of the equator in the Maldives. Absolutely everything got me: the flights (all 3), the boat journey to the island with absolutely nothing around, standing on the deck of the overwater room staring at the ocean, the fish, the endless sky. The beginning of the Simple Gifts section in Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. The first sampling of Tauer L’Air and Orris. And this one may sound odd but when the engines reverse once a flight has landed.

    • Brigitte says:

      Wow! Your comment just gave me chills. For me the view of the Manhattan skyline at dusk from the no 7 train.
      Judith Jamison’s daughter was a friend of mine. We took ballet classes together at a studio over a bagel shop on Broadway. She loved perfume and introduced me to Ombre Rose, her signature.

    • Musette says:

      My similar vista is the streetcar from Market St up to Noe Valley – sends that frisson of delight, every time. xoxox

      • Musette says:

        oooh! and! the moment when you are coming back on the 101 to the Bridge (heading back into SF) and, for a brief moment, you are ABOVE the bridge. On a foggy day (aka Tuesday) it is beyond compare! xoxox

        • Cinnamon says:

          many, many years ago on a flight landing at Kennedy the cloud was very low and it seemed as if we were just hovering for ages before the runway came into view and we landed. we’re talking decades ago but I still recall that feeling of being suspended.

  • Taxi says:

    Frisson? Good description for the sensations stirred with the combination of beeswax, incense, organ music, and a choir in an old Gothic church. I lived in a convent boarding school for 3 years. The religion didn’t stick but my love for the music did.
    I remember Bill Evans playing in San Francisco in 1980, shortly before his passing. Amazing.
    The Sauf fragrances sound divine.

    • March says:

      I saw that Sauf link too, I’d forgotten all about them! I wonder how many of us had church/sacred music as an early source of frisson? Before I had the remotest idea what it was… I grew up going to a very plain, simple wooden Lutheran church with lots of amazing hymns and liturgies in a minor key. Transporting.

    • Musette says:

      Taxi, that gig was at Keystone Korner – it’s part of The Last Waltz album. Him, in his weird safari jacket and neckcloth, making music to charm the angels…


  • filomena813 says:

    March, what a beautiful post!
    It hit home as I also live in the Mid-Atlantic and we have had snow for two days.

    • March says:

      I can’t believe it’s still snowing! Quite hard right now, in fact. I’m in bed with the dogs, looking out the window while I type this. Pretty close to perfect, frankly.

  • Tara C says:

    Sounds are big for me too – that hushed sound right after a snowstorm, a big thunderstorm just as you described it, the cooing of doves, the soft sighs of my puppy as she snuggles around my head on the pillow. And views in nature are very moving to me too: the night sky in a very dark remote place, the whiteness of winter and the intense green of spring, the oranges & reds of autumn.

    The other thing that gets me is acts of courage, compassion and bravery by others. I am often moved to tears and frissons when witnessing a great human accomplishment.

    • March says:

      We’re having a winter white-out right now (as close to it as we get in these parts anyway) and I’m loving it. And yes on the night sky in remote places! and the other seasonal intensities. I don’t think I could live happily in a place without seasons, the changes bring so much to my daily life.

      • rosarita says:

        The changing seasons never fail to thrill me, esp the march of spring flowers in order and the individual birds returning from wherever they go. Bare tree branches in winter in front of a spectacular sunset. So much more. Thanks for this gorgeous post, March.

  • Pam says:

    What a great post, March. Always special for me is hearing the train whistle at night. Since we moved here a few years ago, I can hear it, and it gives me such an indescribable feeling. Also, hearing certain birds in the Spring. I guess my feeling is related to the auditory.

    • March says:

      For years, at three of my houses (the three before this one) I could, through some acoustic sorcery, hear the freight trains in the middle of the night occasionally, from quite some distance away when I looked at my best guess on a map. That whistle and those moments felt … so private, like a sound that existed solely for my enjoyment. I get chills just remembering. Tangent: your comment and the memory made me think of Peter Paul & Mary singing Five Hundred Miles / Railroaders Lament. Excellent frisson.

  • Musette says:

    I want to thank gwyneth for linking to that article on ‘frisson’ – it was great!
    Funny you should mention Venice. Venice itself doesn’t move me, either. But Lido does. There’s a weird purple haze over the lagoon out behind Hotel des Bains that makes me think I’m looking across the Adriatic (not quite)…. the early morning haze. And the mimosas.
    And chord changes can stop me dead in my tracks, while stars whizz all around me. Damn you, chord changes! Why you do me like that ??? xoxoxo

    • March says:

      Chord changes FASCINATE me. I have no musical training and I wish I did, just to understand them better — how do they reach in there like that and grab you? Is it our primal brain, encountering the unexpected?