Knismesis and Gargalesis

Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano (duration c.8′).
First performed by Shefali Pryor, Andrew Barnes and Bernadette Harvey on 4 September 2018, at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

Video: Premiere performance, recorded by the Sydney Conservatorium of Music

Program Note
For something so common to the human experience, tickling has not been widely studied. Although it has occupied minds as diverse as Aristotle and Bacon, a taxonomy of tickling wasn’t published until 1897, by psychologists Hall and Allin. They proposed the binary terms which I’ve taken as the title of my trio, and its two connected movements. Knismesis refers to a feathery, light touch. It isn’t associated with play, nor does it produce laughter, and we can induce knismesis on ourselves. This is assumed to be an evolutionary development- we feel a ‘tickling’ sensation and go to scratch it- thus removing the foreign object (insect or rogue thread) from our skin. It is not limited to humans- the infamous party trick of hypnotising a shark by ‘tickling’ its underside or nose is a form of knismesis. Gargalesis is much more mysterious. It is the tickling we associate with laughter and is almost uniquely found among humans and, to a lesser extent, primates. Unlike knismesis, it cannot be self-induced and there is no clear consensus on why we do it. It has been thought that it helped form interpersonal bonds- connections with other humans- but 2012 experiments by Harris at the University of California San Diego with ‘tickling robots’ have questioned this assumption. In my Gargalesis, the tickling begins as play but soon becomes oppressive and tortuous- the musical equivalent of ‘tickle torture’ when childhood games go from play to irritation.