The lights have gone down, and the audience waits in anticipation.
For the next few hours you will be swept away in a performance brimming with moments that stimulate the senses. We pay good money for films, concerts, operas or plays. For all recorded history, we humans have found great value in what one could call time-based arts: pre-arranged pleasing sensory experiences lasting a set amount of time.
Why do we do this?
It is a hard question to answer. Science demonstrates that these experiences release dopamine in the brain that make us happy. Studies show that enjoying music, theater or film has a positive impact on the pleasure centers in our brain. And on the less empirical side, thousands of years of writing and aphorisms back up the science. Four hundred years ago, Shakespeare scratched the words “If music be the food of love, play on” on the first page manuscript of his “Twelfth Night.” It is indisputable that humans value and crave these time-based arts. But do we know why?
Short answer: No.
I have lived and worked in arts and culture for my entire life. As a youngster, I wrote and played music. I went to college for music and started my career in arts management at Carnegie Hall. I have since worked for companies that use technology to help art and cultural organizations thrive. My whole life trajectory has been in the business of providing time-based arts experiences for fellow humans.
And yet I have no idea why these experiences are so universally beloved.
Scientists believe that human brains have remained largely unchanged for the past 40,000 years or so. If this is the case, it would follow that the basis of our love of an orchestra concert or Broadway play existed in our DNA long before either art form arrived on the scene.
So where the heck did our love of performance come from?
Reversing the Clock
As a thought experiment, I reverse the clock in my mind and speed it up. Hamilton of today becomes Oklahoma of the 1940s becomes Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute of the 1700s. If I understand the popularity of The Magic Flute, will it help explain why people love Hamilton?
Even 300 years back, they all still resemble each other. They all tell a compelling human story, evince laughter and tears, and take place in a box-shaped theater with audiences applauding the talent onstage.
So I speed further back in time, past the earliest Italian operas of the 1600s, Noh performances in Japan, the early French choral works reverberating against the walls of Notre Dame cathedral in the 12th century. Still, there is much that resembles today’s performances: pageantry in grand spaces; feasts for the ears, eyes and mind.
As a thought experiment, I reverse the clock in my mind and speed it up.
Speeding back in time further and faster now, the buildings vanish but the performances and performers continue: Troubadours singing in ancient village squares, Euripides writing plays for the Greek amphitheaters. In my head, I zip all the way back to 2500 BCE, where I find the very first recorded epic: the Sumerian story of Gilgamesh. Even 4,500 years back, there is much in Gilgamesh to be recognizable to modern minds: heroes and villains, love and war.
So my time machine continues to rewind further and things get hazy. After a few thousand years, written records cease entirely and conjecture takes over. We can suspect that temporal arts existed for tens of thousands of years before the written word - in the form of stories told around bonfires or elaborate rituals to mark births and deaths.
And then back further still: 10,000 years, 20,000 years, 40,000 years. As noted, still a time when human brains were no different than our brains today.
But back then there were no towns, no farms, no roads, no written language. Even a paucity of cave drawings. Virtually no clues as to why or how humans might have satisfied their craving for these time-based experiences.
Where does this leave us?
Before recorded history
40,000 years ago, Homo sapiens were roaming in tribes, living off the land, barely discernible from other primates. They were truly creatures of nature. Did they have a craving for performance and if so, how did they satisfy it?
Here’s one crazy idea: As creatures of nature, could humans have learned to love performance from nature itself? Perhaps so.
And where in nature do we find the ultimate temporal arts experience? A pre-arranged pleasing sensory experience lasting a set amount of time? If you think about it, the answer is obvious.
Perhaps the world’s first performance was a sunrise.
The lights have gone down and the audience waits in anticipation. It is 40,000 years ago. The “lights are down” because it is night. The audience waits not so much in anticipation, but in the emotional cousin to anticipation: fear. Humans have no horns, fangs or fur. They are night blind. They are surrounded by predators. For humans in this era, nighttime equals danger. And while the rest of tribe sleeps, you have been chosen to remain awake and alert, waiting in desperate anticipation of the light.
At length, something changes. You start to see the outline of the mountain ridge in the distance. The ridge slowly develops an indigo backdrop. The subtle shift in the light cues a few birds to burble forth in song.
As the light comes up, indigo becomes navy and more birds join in. As navy becomes pink, a full avian orchestra swells all around you. Pink becomes orange becomes yellow, and with a crescendo of birdsong the first full rays of light sweep over the mountain ridge. In an instant, your entire panorama cracks open, going from pre-dawn monochrome to brilliant color as far as the eye can see!
With this multi-sensory experience, your deathly fear of night is replaced with the joy of a new day of life. Your brain fills with dopamine that taps your pleasure centers and you smile a grateful smile of relief. You’ve survived the night.
Why do humans love time-based art experiences? Perhaps it reminds us that we are alive.
Happy New Year, everyone.
Photo by Syahirah Saleh on Unsplash. Top photo by Giuseppe Famiani on Unsplash.