In the Church of Corpus Domini, Bologna, Santa Caterina de Vigri sits upright on view, her flesh-color ranging from a brick-red to black and still cleaving to her bones though she died in 1463. She is the only such saint to sit upright, and her shrine miraculously survived the same bombing raids of 1943 which destroyed all the surrounding decorations and building. Next to her sits her violetta, created by Andrea Amati (1413-63), which is the oldest known surviving stringed instrument. So, the saint, uncorrupted, and her instrument, also able to out-survive its contemporaries.
According to Marina Warner, in her well-packed and fascinating book Phantasmagoria, "The word 'galvanize' has at least two meanings: applied to metals, it means coating iron or steel with zinc through an electrolytic process in order to protect it from corrosion [italics mine]; figuratively, it means something closer to [Luigi] Galvani's work, the revitalization of a moribund or torpid organism: 'I was galvanized into action.'" These two meanings, both relating quite well to the hope presented by the incorrupt body of a saint that waits its resurrection with its bones still holding it together, and also both relating to her violetta in a manner we will attend to momentarily, are especially interesting here because Mr. Luigi Galvani himself is entombed right across the nave from her.
Luigi Galvani (1737-98) was a physiologist and professor of medicine, the one who first introduced an electric shock into a frog’s corpse and beheld that it caused the animal to kick its legs. This opened up a variety of excited questions about a possibly attainable source of life-force, leading to all sorts of other experiments, and tales like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Luigi’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, tried this same electrification on human corpses, bringing their limbs to jump and their faces to become quite expressive, and then moved the process to the living via the mentally-ill, thus beginning electroshock therapy in an attempt to bring life back to a frozen (terrified, confused, overwhelmed) mind.
“In England, such [medical] applications were encouraged by Newton’s suggestions, thrown out in a number of queries at the end of the 1713 edition of his Optics, that the animal spirits or nervous fluid which communicated impulses from the brain to the muscles might be related to a subtle ethereal or electrical fluid that constituted a kind of universal medium in the universe. Hints such as these, combined with the strong inherited tendency to think of electricity as a vapor or effluvium, made it easy to see electricity as a mediator between microcosm and macrocosm, and as the principle of life itself. In America, where electrotherapies formed a strong field of what has been called “electrical humanitarianism,” Dr. T. Gale wrote in his Electricity, Or Etherial Fire, Considered (1802) that electricity was a kind of universal atmosphere, which all living creatures inhabited and respired.” --Steven Connor.
And then came Mesmer, with his flowing silk robes and shiny gold slippers, pouring all of his electric personality into large vats, like batteries, which he would position his numerous patients around in an attempt to heal as many people at once as possible. They leaned their ailing bodies against the protruding iron rods and watched him as he prowled around them, gazing at them dramatically. Once they were sufficiently aroused, he waved his magnetized wand over them, sending them into 'curative' fits and convulsions.
Now, it is still true that we use electric paddles to try to revive a (very recently deceased) corpse even today, and very often with success. The question is mainly how to navigate that shadowy, sometimes grisly space between life-saving techniques and Frankenstein, while also somehow sidestepping the messier areas of mass-hysteria and public fainting-spells. But inside that space is a fascinating realm involving the electric impulses that communicate information between synapses in your brain and, again, music. Oliver Sacks thoroughly explores this realm in his book Musicophilia.
He describes, for example, a man who discovered his first interest and immense talent in his late forties, directly after being struck by lightning. He also describes various epileptic patients whose seizures are brought on by the sound of church bells, or by low notes on a violin, or swing music. Some seizures begin with their very own music, recognizable to the patient only, like dream music--nothing that can be brought back and described precisely to anyone else. He also discovered that many of these patients experienced a 'doubling of consciousness,' and could continue with mechanical actions, much like an automaton,without creating any memories of those activities, as the memories they're creating are those being lived on some other plane--perhaps a scene of dancing that never 'actually' occurred, or an afternoon in a potato field just like the one in which the first seizure was suffered.
That doubling of consciousness is what I'm imagining here, under the spell of St. Caterina's electric violin. What was once the saint and some paper dolls is now her and dancers--real, alive--, her as part of the show, the musician for the dancers, the one giving them their rhythm, storyline, electricity. She is part of something, something that matters. That’s the other consciousness, the one outside of the four sides of her box.
So, electricity is everywhere. Trees make a little bit, running it through their bark. Your heart works via electricity it generates from potassium, sodium and calcium. Communication is run between the synapses in your brain via electricity. There’s of course lightning. And humans are making more and more electricity even outside of their bodies using a variety of tools. And all of this has a music to it.
Christina Kubisch is an artist who explores this connection between electricity and music from a completely different direction than Galvani, Sacks, Shelley, or even Santa Caterina. She has had a certain type of headphones created which a user takes along with a map of an area (meant only as an inspiration and a guide, but in no way a limiting force) in order to hear the music created by all the electric fields surrounding us every day.
The headphones create an electromagnetic field which allows the wearer to pick up the sounds of other electromagnetic fields. She finds complicated chords played by the tram in Bratislava; a subway in China that sounds like 70s electronic music; the thin, high, noisiness of a plane...
Somehow, electricity is there in the force of life, and somehow, music is involved. Think about shamanic, hypnotic drumming, about the heights of ecstasy some reach at jam sessions of their favorite bands--such heights that they are willing to drop everything and follow the band around. Think about the chanters in ancient masses, about techno-music, about binaural beats. And that makes the quote at the top of this essay make more sense: problems occur when the rhythm of your life gets out of whack--somehow, the vibrations are off, the energy isn’t there, the organs falter and the synapses sleep late because the alarm never went off.
In an interview with Steve Silberman of Wired Magazine about the studies that went into Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks stated : "The therapeutic power of music hit me dramatically in 1966, when I started working with the Awakenings patients at Beth Abraham in the Bronx. I saw post-encephalitics who seemed frozen, transfixed, unable to take a step. But with music to give them a flow, they could sing, dance, and be active again. For Parkinsonian patients, the ability to perform actions in sequence is impaired. They need temporal structure and organization, and the rhythm of music can be crucial. For people with Alzheimer's, music incites recall, bringing the past back like nothing else."
There it is again, that image of re-infusing a corpse with life, and this time the electricity is created with music--its flow (like electricity) and its rhythmic pulse.It is the first step those post-encephalitics were unable to take; once the music gave them that first step and a current to follow, they were able to ride it.There was another thought I was chewing on here, with the saint and her violin:
There is a difference between skill and possession. And what you want (even, I would argue, as a doctor) is possession, because if a person is ill, it is from not following the logic (rites, rituals, rules, rhythms) of the reigning forces or melodies (‘gods’) of existence. Only that force understands its own logic, or those in choreography with it. And everything you see is a symbolic aspect of that logic, including illness. Music historically has much to do with trance, both as a result of possession or not. That trance is the opportunity for something higher and more general than your ego to take over your body. That is the electricity created. In the painting above, St. Caterina is possessed. She is an electric force, radiating. And she is bringing that electricity into the forms, making them alive through her music, infusing the air and their limbs with the tango of their love, that “fire that consumes without leaving ashes” (Vannoccio Biringuccio, 1540). of their love, that “fire that consumes without leaving ashes” (Vannoccio Biringuccio, 1540).
“Leap, and the net will appear.” --variously attributed to American naturalist John Burroughs, Gaelyn Foley, Julia Cameron, and also an “unknown” Zen source.
with a bite
just fly baby
enjoy the flight
In the Church of Corpus Domini, Bologna, Santa Caterina de Vigri sits upright on view, her flesh ranging from a brick-red to black and still cleaving to her bones, though she died in 1463. She is the only such saint to sit upright, and her shrine miraculously survived the bombing raids of 1943 which destroyed the building in which she sits. Next to her sits her violetta, created by Andrea Amati (1413-63), which is the oldest known surviving stringed instrument. So, the saint, uncorrupted, remains with her instrument, a fellow-survivor. She sits across the nave from the tomb of Luigi Galvani, famous for his attempts to show electricity as the ‘spark’ of life with his seizing frogs, experiments which led later to tales like Frankenstein and the reality of electroshock therapy and cardiac paddles. His life gave meaning to the word galvanize, which means not only to give life to the moribund but also to protect from corrosion. The elements of this nave scene led me to consider the connections between electricity, music, and incorruptibility.
The mysterious creative power of music has been expressed visually in several of my favorite Remedios Varo paintings: for example the mother-of-pearl-faced musician creating a structure from the sounds of his clarinet, or the musician freeing birds from crystal cages by playing her bow across beams of sunlight. Might music itself be the life-spark that Galvani was looking for? The source of the rhythm and melody that synchronize us into being, harmonize into personality and memory, the whole cloth of our existence?
"Contrary to the old, simplistic notion that art and music are processed in the right hemisphere of our brains, with language and mathematics in the left, recent findings from my laboratory and those of my colleagues are showing us that music is distributed throughout the brain. Through studies of people with brain damage, we’ve seen patients who have lost the ability to read a newspaper but can still read music, or individuals who can play the piano but lack the motor coordination to button their own sweater. Music listening, performance, and composition engage nearly every area of the brain that we have so far identified, and involve nearly every neural subsystem. Could this fact account for claims that music listening exercises other parts of our minds; that listening to Mozart twenty minutes a day will make us smarter?"
“extraordinary powers of music with our post-encephalitic patients--its power to ‘awaken them at every level: to alertness when they were lethargic, to normal movements when they were frozen, and, most uncannily, to vivid emotions and memories, fantasies, whole identities which were, for the most part, unavailable to them....[And] It is music that the parkinsonian needs, for only music, which is rigorous yet spacious, sinuous and alive, can evoke responses that are equally so. And he needs not only the metrical structure of rhythm and the free movement of melody--its contours and trajectories, its ups and downs, its tensions and relaxations--but the ‘will’ and intentionality of music, to allow him to regain the freedom of his own kinetic melody.”
“[Miles] Davis famously described his improvisational technique as parallel to the way that Picasso described his use of a canvas: The most critical aspect of the work, both artists said, was not the objects themselves, but the space between objects. In Miles’s case, he described the most important part of his solos as the empty space between notes, the “air” that he placed between one note and the next. Knowing precisely when to hit the next note, and allowing the listener time to anticipate it, is a hallmark of Davis’s genius. This is particularly apparent in his album Kind of Blue.”
“Do the maths. We can function - sometimes quite brilliantly - on six hours' sleep a night. Eight hours of work was more than good enough for centuries (oh the desperate irony that we actually work longer hours since the invention of the internet and smartphones). Four hours will amply cover picking the kids up, cleaning the flat, eating, washing and the various etceteras. We are left with six hours. 360 minutes to do whatever we want. Is what we want simply to numb out and give Simon Cowell even more money? To scroll through Twitter and Facebook looking for romance, bromance, cats, weather reports, obituaries and gossip? To get nostalgically, painfully drunk in a pub where you can't even smoke?”…“What if you could know everything there is to know about playing the piano in under an hour (something the late, great Glenn Gouldclaimed, correctly I believe, was true)? The basics of how to practise and how to read music, the physical mechanics of finger movement and posture, all the tools necessary to actually play a piece - these can be written down and imparted like a flat-pack furniture how-to-build-it manual; it then is down to you to scream and howl and hammer nails through fingers in the hope of deciphering something unutterably alien until, if you're very lucky, you end up with something halfway resembling the end product.”…“What if, rather than paying £70 a month for a gym membership that delights in making you feel fat, guilty and a world away from the man your wife married you bought a few blank canvases and some paints and spent time each day painting your version of "I love you" until you realised that any woman worth keeping would jump you then and there just for that, despite your lack of a six-pack? I didn't play the piano for 10 years. A decade of slow death by greed working in the City, chasing something that never existed in the first place (security, self-worth, Don Draper albeit a few inches shorter and a few women fewer). And only when the pain of not doing it got greater than the imagined pain of doing it did I somehow find the balls to pursue what I really wanted and had been obsessed by since the age of seven – to be a concert pianist. Admittedly I went a little extreme – no income for five years, six hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental hospital, most of my dignity and about 35lbs in weight. And the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not perhaps the Disney ending I'd envisaged as I lay in bed aged 10 listening to Horowitz devouring Rachmaninov at Carnegie Hall.”
(Above: Acrylic on Panel 18 x 24)
“A 24-year-old woman was first seen in 1950, because of seizures. From early childhood she had been unusually fond of music and had always felt a strong desire to express her emotions in dancing. At the age of 16 she was a tall, gaunt girl who felt both inferior and aloof. At this time she would often dance in the living room and her father would tease her about her ‘jitterbug antics.’ Offended, she would withdraw to her room and in solitude play records by the hour. She felt transported by loud ‘swing’ music and discovered that by concentrating intensely she could ‘see visions.’ These usually were of a blond woman and a dark man. They were dressed in various fashions but usually wore evening clothes, as if they were about to attend a formal dance. The couple seemed to be dancing together. The patient mentioned this phenomenon casually to her parents and friends, none of whom believed her. She rather enjoyed the vision and the accompanying trancelike state which she entered after prolonged listening. She continued to induce these episodes for the next 2 years.