Dangerous Listening

The trio that I alluded to in last week’s blog is a project and commission proposed to me by Maria Barnas, a Dutch writer, poet, and artist at the AAR. She has become fascinated by Stendhal’s Syndrome and has enlisted several artists in diverse fields to create works dealing with this idea.

Named after Stendhal, who described his experience in his book Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio, Stendhal’s Syndrome is—according to its Wikipedia entry—a “psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion, and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly “beautiful” or a large amount of art is in a single place. The term can also be used to describe a similar reaction to a surfeit of choice in other circumstances, e.g. when confronted with immense beauty in the natural world.”

The syndrome was named in 1979 by Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, who observed and described more than 100 similar cases among tourists and visitors in Florence. Maria and I are going to visit her next week, possibly meet some patients, and discuss some of the most dangerous works of art and why they have this effect.

When writing a musical work on this topic, I am confronted with three obvious possibilities:

  1. Earnestly try to compose the most sublime piece I can possibly write.
  2. Compose the most unsublime piece as a reaction to this task.
  3. Ignore the task and compose a piece that explores wholly musical, rather than extramusical ideas.

I am curious to know what other composers would do (or have done) in a situation like this.

12 thoughts on “Dangerous Listening

  1. Colin Holter

    I take it you’ve never experienced Stendhal’s Syndrome firsthand? If it isn’t too “gonzo composer” for you, you could try to figure out what the optimal Stendhal’s Syndrome conditions are and do your best to replicate the ailment in yourself. That’s probably how I’d start.

    Reply
  2. rtanaka

    The Western perception of the “sublime” and “beautiful” are highly shaped by Immanuel Kant’s aesthetics which influenced the German Idealists who have had a very strong impact on Romantic arts. (Which the Wiki article makes a mention of happening primarily in romantic musics.) Some info here: Kant on the Sublime

    The issue is very complicated but to make a very long story short, according to Kant the enjoyment of art is partially derived from the simultaneous fear and feeling of domination over nature, and art must, in some way, seem “natural” to those who perceive it. (Ex. When one observes a performer playing music with great ease — it seems so “natural”.) So it is not surprising, then, for some to derive similar enjoyments from music in the same way that they might be derived from nature, if that is what they’re primarily looking for.

    Maybe the “illness” that Magherini describes is a form of psychological response rooted in some kind of aesthetic connection between the artwork and the audience. Obviously the syndrome is not reproducible on a universal scale, otherwise we’d have artworks which would be driving everybody who went near it go crazy. I think its more that people are crazy to begin with and that certain artworks help to bring that side out of them.

    There’s no such thing as dangerous art, really. Art is really too easily ignored and dismissed to have that kind of immediate effect. Transcendental experiences are done willingly on part of the audience — not something that is psychologically induced.

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  3. pgblu

    Yes, it’s important not to conflate the sublime and the beautiful. There’s also, just to confuse matters of aesthetics even more, the picturesque.

    This distinction did not start with Kant, by any means, but it did come to a new kind of fruition in 19th-century British art criticism. A full account appears in the appropriately titled book by John Walter Hipple, The Beautiful, the Sublime, and the Picturesque (1957).

    A little dipping into the lit does leave the impression, however, that these terms and this whole discussion revolved around legitimating the peculiar tastes of British aristocracy in the face of all manner of barbarism. D’be nice to see these terms either thoroughly re-assessed or simply tossed out like so much fascinating history. Could we, and would we want to, really do without these words when talking about art?

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  4. pgblu

    A little surfing reveals this site, which is a quicker and much more conveniently located read than Hipple.

    Also, apparently some dude at SUNY Buffalo did as his dissertation a sequel to the Hipple specifically about music.

    Larsson, Roger Barnett The beautiful, the sublime and the picturesque in eighteenth-century musical thought in Britain (1980).

    Okay, I’ll shut up now… but I hope the comment that these terms have a specific cultural milieu behind them can be regarded as relevant.

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  5. rtanaka

    I think the concept of the sublime is often associated with rationalism — sort of the astonishment one gets at looking at the magnificient logical structures found in mathematics and nature. Logic, being metaphysical, often has a quality of boundlessness that allows people to imagine the concept of infinite. On the other hand, beauty is often associated with sensory experience, sort of something that arises out of emotion and the physical nature of things.

    For Kant, the sublime contained masculine properties while beauty, feminine ones. So from these notions come the stereotype of men being “rational” while women “emotional” — probably these notions don’t mean as much in the 21st century, but nonetheless they are still there in some form, I think. Romanticism was sort of an attempt to get away from classical rationalism, and instead focused very heavily on the individual aspects of emotion — maybe this is why it often triggers a very strong response among some people.

    Is it aesthetics or psychology? There are pills out there that can make you happy, but is there such thing as music that forces you to feel in certain ways? Somehow the latter doesn’t seem too plausible. I mean, there are “happy” songs out there, but a lot of them are pretty cheesy…not quite the effect it was going for, I think.

    Reply
  6. pgblu

    Source
    “For Kant, the sublime contained masculine properties while beauty, feminine ones.”

    I haven’t run across this in Kant; being no expert, can you help me locate a citation? D’be very grateful.

    Reply
  7. CM Zimmermann

    The bit about Kant’s distinction between beauty being feminine and the sublime being masculine is from an early work: ‘Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime’, which no one really takes seriously beyond early insights into what would become the monumental 3rd Critique.

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  8. CM Zimmermann

    rtanaka, you worte:

    ‘The issue is very complicated but to make a very long story short, according to Kant the enjoyment of art is partially derived from the simultaneous fear and feeling of domination over nature, and art must, in some way, seem “natural” to those who perceive it. (Ex. When one observes a performer playing music with great ease — it seems so “natural”.) So it is not surprising, then, for some to derive similar enjoyments from music in the same way that they might be derived from nature, if that is what they’re primarily looking for.’

    You are indeed making a long story short, unfortunately at the cost of mis-presenting details essential to Kant’s aesthetics. You are conflating the experience of Kantian beauty and the sublime. Kant insists that nature (not art) is the occasion for the feeling of the sublime. Acutally, the sublime is a feeling that takes place in the mind and does not reside in nature (thus the reference to nature being the occasion).

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  9. rtanaka

    Thanks Mr. Zimmerman for the correction. I’m no Kant expert either…I just sort of know from what I’ve read and talked to with some philosophy people, and I’m just now sort of getting into it. But everyone I talk to says that he’s such a seminal figure in Western history that it’s worth knowing about him in one form or another. What we conceive of as the idea of the “individual genius”, for example, comes pretty much from him. His influence is so immense that a lot of people say that Western history can be divided into pre- and post-Kant categories.

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  10. pgblu

    My own Kant expert tells me Kant was much less interested in the beauty of art than in the beauty of nature, specifically the design of pepper gardens.

    Doesn’t seem like he’d have had much to say about the music of his time.

    Pepper Spices of Kerala

    That’s sure to give you a head rush a la Stendhal, eh?

    Reply
  11. rtanaka

    I think it was more along the lines that Kant wanted art to invoke something about nature. It seems that he had high regards for the “natural” order of things, and saw the balance and symmetry found in nature as something as an ideal. I think this idea is reflected very much in the artworks of that period.

    I think he didn’t say much about music, although a class in orchestration I took with Mike Fink we talked about his ideas about “color” a bit. I don’t have the quotation off hand, but basically the idea was that color was a way to accentuate structure — i.e. the differing timbres of the instrument could be used to emphasize motivic gestures, but this is something that is applied on top of the pre-existing structures in pitch and harmony. (What’s probably known now as the standard way to orchestrate.) Starting with Debussy or so, you start to see more emphasis put on the color itself, rather than the underlying structures in pitch. Then with the later modern works you start to see color itself become the source of structure, rather than the color being an accentuation of something.

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  12. pgblu

    to be continued
    Kant gets a lot of his aesthetics from Edmund Burke, who lived around the same time as Aaron Burr. They also had similar last names. Alexander Hamilton was shot by Aaron Burr, and apparently someone felt bad for him so he put them on a 20-dollar bill. Thus a lot of people think Hamilton was one of our presidents. He did run for president, I think, but not as often as Henry Clay (who lived a lot later than Kant). Henry Clay ran for president at least five times, but then threw up his hands and said “I’d rather be right than president.” It’s not clear what Clay thought of John Cage, but then one is a lumpy substance, and the other is a kind of enclosure. Not sure where I’m going with this.

    Reply

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