These Are The Songs I Sing When I’m Sad


Jane Miller in These Are The Songs I Sing When I’m Sad

At The Fishbowl (100 – 1398 Cartwright, Granville Island) until June 10, 2017
Tickets from $15 (student/artist) at or at the door

Posted June 8, 2017

Jane Miller, actor/singer/composer, is fearless, funny and smart. She and Brian Quirt (founder of Nightswimming, dramaturge and director of the Banff Centre Playwrights Colony) have been exploring the complexity of elements that bring tears to our eyes when we hear certain music. And more, why we like to feel so bad.

Neuroscientists, Miller tells us, say it’s all about dopamine, the neurotransmitter that tickles the brain’s reward and pleasure centre. We love dopamine; we’re addicted to dopamine. And it looks like sad songs trigger it.

Seated at an electric keyboard, the equally electric Miller opens – after casual, friendly conversation with the audience – with Adele’s “Someone Like You”, the ultimate breakup song. Those recently suffering a broken heart should stay away from lyrics like these: “Never mind, I’ll find someone like you/I wish nothing but the best for you/Don’t forget me, I beg, I remember you said/Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.”

Part of Boca del Lupo Theatre’s Micro Performance Series, These Are The Songs is part TED talk, part performance and it feels collaborative. In the intimate space of The Fishbowl, there is no fourth wall, no separation between Miller and the audience of about twenty. We’re all swimming around in there together.

There are, Miller tells us, a lot of components that turn our taps on. Content: sad, sad lyrics. Context: breakup, loneliness, death. And musicality. And that’s where it got really interesting for me. What is it that makes a particular piece of music so heart-wrenching? Turns out there’s a word for it: appoggiatura, from the Italian appoggiare, “to lean upon”. It’s defined as a musical ornament that consists of an added note in a melody that delays the appearance of the principal note. It’s that little grace note preventing the resolution that we so desperately desire.

If you want to get all metaphorical about it – and Miller does not but I bet she’s thought about it a lot – it’s that obstacle in life that just prevents us from getting what we want. So excruciatingly close but yet so far away.

Running through These Are The Songs are Miller’s personal sad times and she has a lot to be sad about: the sudden death of her father when she was seventeen followed seven years later by the sudden death of her mother. A breakup with a musician after a couple of years. And I’m betting there’s more.

Miller is so animated – leaping off her stool with air-drums rolls – and she allows herself to be so completely vulnerable that it’s impossible not to be drawn in. At times, it’s almost unbearably intimate. When the audience is asked to reveal – with or without context – songs that make them sad, it would not be surprising to see tears. Miller herself – joyous, excited and exuberant – seems close to tearing up on occasion.

Virtuosic at the keyboard, Miller plays bits of the suggested sad songs and, on opening night, when she was unfamiliar with a particular song, the person sharing a sad song bravely sang a little.

I was left with more questions for Miller and Quirt: what is it about the quality of certain instruments that trigger melancholy? Why does the piccolo not do it but the oboe might? Why not, necessarily, the violin but almost always, the cello? Not the trumpet, but the saxophone? Is there something in the very quality of sound that gets our juices flowing? And what if a song loaded with appoggiatura (that should make us sad or tense) had upbeat lyrics? Would music trump lyrics or vice versa?

These Are The Songs I Sing When I’m Sad will get you thinking about the songs that make you sad. Joni Mitchell’s “River”? Barber’s “Adagio For Strings”? Chopin’s “Funeral March”? “Strange Fruit”? Don’t get me started. is amazing; go there, put your sad song in the search, get the Kleenex ready and prepare for a really good cry.