Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Kandel & Lohengrin: Music & Brain

Eric Kandel, M.D.:
"We are what we are through what we have experienced and what we have remembered."

In 2001 I was fortunate enough to be in New Orleans for the American Psychiatric Association Annual Conference. One of the lectures attracted a long queue and it turned out that the Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel was giving his lecture. I was fortunate enough to be able to secure a seat.

"What learning does is to change the strength of the synaptic connections in the brain," Kandel explained, "and this has held true for every form of learning so far analyzed. So, what genetic and developmental processes do is specify the cells that connect to each other, but what they do not specify is the exact strength of those connections. Environmental contingencies, such as learning, play a significant part in the strength of those connections."

"Different forms of learning result in memories by changing that strength in different ways. Short-term memory results from transient changes that last minutes and does not require any new synthesis of proteins, Kandel said. However, long-term memories are based in more lasting changes of days to weeks that do require new brain protein to be synthesized. And this synthesis requires the input of the neuron’s genes."

Lohengrin Royal Opera House
I was at the Royal Opera House Lohengrin in May 2009.

I have always maintained that there is something fundamentally enjoyable about a piece of music that you are familiar with. It is of course the case with many pop songs. But they were only a few minutes long. Lohengrin runs to nearly four hours.

Yet to me it is one of Wagner’s most wonderful piece of music. On the 8th of May the musical performance was amazing. You can feel the brain re-activating the proteins.

The set was of course from 1977 and bits of it smack of a school play. The costume was extraordinary even after 32 years. Adherence to the classical Grail story is deceptive especially with the unexpected kissing of Elsa and her brother on the lips. I know incest is covered in the Ring cycle but sex seems to be the new black now in opera. Or was Wagner dropping hints on Nietzsche’s relationship with his sister? I did not think it helped the opera Lohengrin.

There is no question though: Lohengrin has one of the best music of all the Wagners including Götterdämmerung.
The Cockroach Catcher and his wife were fortunate enough to have seen the controversial production by Robert Wilson at The Met in 1998.

Wagner Opera Website

“Out of the silence rises the shimmer of violins, ethereal yet alive with wonder, tracing a melody of sublime beauty. A soft bar of light ascends across a huge, empty stage, soon crossed by a hard, vertical light box that descends as the music grows richer and more complex, swelling to a rapturous climax before fading back into the stillness from which it arose.

“Characters with masklike faces dressed in sculptural sheaths stand in hieratic poses or glide slowly across the stage, sometimes seeming to float. An immense, blood-red mass – a stage curtain unfurled slowly but inexorably – pursues the cool shades of blue, white and gray in a stately wedding procession.

These are some of the images in Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, as staged by visionary director and artist Robert Wilson. Wilson’s Lohengrin returns to the Metropolitan Opera.” Marion Rosenberg writing for
Panache Privee.

It had the worst booing in Met’s history.

“At its opening night in 1998, Wilson’s Lohengrin earned one of the ugliest receptions in Met history. Playwright and critic Albert Innaurato wrote of ‘banshee shrieks of apparently homicidal intent aimed at the director,’ though lusty cheers greeted the production when the Met revived it the following season. Reached by phone in Baden-Baden, Germany, where he was rehearsing Verdi’s Aida, the soft-spoken Wilson sighed when asked to recall the Lohengrin premiere.

‘I think that, for the most part, we’re quite provincial in the United States. You’ve got some of the world’s greatest directors working right here in Europe, and their work is not known in the United States. By and large, the productions at the Met are still in the 19th century.’ Wilson’s method of taking the production’s visual book as his starting point was perceived as ‘very radical’ in New York, though he pointed out that his basic conceit – a frame that gradually shrinks to enclose Lohengrin and Elsa’s bridal chamber, then expands for the opera’s final, public scene – echoed Wagner’s original pen-and-ink sketches for Lohengrin.”

From the
Design Museum Website:
“Born in Waco, Texas in 1941, Robert Wilson struggled as a child to overcome a speech disability which he finally conquered in his late teens with the help of the dancer, Byrd Hoffman. After studying business administration at the University of Texas in Austin, he switched to architecture and in 1963 he enrolled on a course at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. During his time there, Wilson attended lectures by Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, widow of the Bauhaus designer, László, and studied painting with George McNeill at the American Center in Paris as well as working with learning disabled children back in New York.

Some well known architects and designers seem to have speech or other disabilities. I have often wondered if classifying these disabilities as handicaps is itself a hindrance to their development. Richard Rogers, the famous architect, was dismissed as stupid and sent to a school for backward children.

"Having graduated from Pratt, Wilson moved to Phoenix, Arizona to assist the visionary architect, Paolo Soleri. Increasingly he was drawn to the theatre, particularly to the experimental dance scene, which was flourishing in New York.”

The New York Times on the film Absolute Wilson: Austere, Enigmatic Innovator. And Charming Fellow, Really.

Wilson’s own website.

Wagner website.


Heather said...

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Cockroach Catcher said...

Email is listed on blog: cockroachcatcher(at) gmail dot com.