Hegel, Valéry, Aesthetics and Existentialism: In Response to Mademoiselle

“He who wishes to record his dream has to be awake.”

            -Paul Valéry

            Mademoiselle, published in 1981 by Bruno Monsaingeon and translated from the original French by Robyn Marsack, is a compilation of conversations of the great musician and teacher, Nadia Boulanger. These dialogues with Monsaingeon took place during the final five years of Boulanger’s life, as she became closer and closer to death. It seems fitting, then, to be a time of reflection on the relationships arisen, mistakes ill-profited from, and lessons realized. In Boulanger’s ninety-two years, she became an incredibly accomplished pianist, prolific conductor, and remarkable teacher of music. Some of her most acclaimed students included Aaron Copland, Roy Harris and Virgil Thompson-and therefore it can truly be said that she “changed the face of American music.”[1]

Characteristic from the onset until the very end of this publication is the apparent amount of charisma, devotion and passion Boulanger exhibited through her music and life, despite the physical setbacks present. One specific constituent to her character was her driven and unwavering view of herself in the lack of contentment she found in her own music. When conversing about the difference between a masterpiece and a simply respectable composition, she was asked to explain the criterion. She states, “For me, this always comes back to faith. As I accept God, I accept emotion. I also accept masterpieces…I believe that there are conditions without which masterpieces cannot be achieved, but I also believe that what defines a masterpiece cannot be pinned down.” There is much wisdom to be seen in this: it is necessarily true. It returns Hegel’s rational and even empirical question of aesthetics: What makes something beautiful? What constitutes good art? The answer can be nothing but subjective and relative to the perceiver, and yet I would agree that masterpieces are borne under but certain conditions. To paraphrase Hegel, nothing great has ever been accomplished without passion.

Another important notion Boulanger emphatically stood for lay in the realm of desire. If one’s desire is such that it may be tainted by lack of opportunity, want of time or simple laziness, the desire had truly no stock in the first place. She speaks of Plato and Schubert, and the greats throughout the age. They are remembered for being truly great, and why; because of their sheer dedication, stanch discipline and distinctive passion to create, to know, to be. Boulanger states earlier on in the work that she believes if one does not value existence, they cannot play well, think well, or live well. If one is not engaged consciously; if one is not thinking, he temporarily exists in vain, he has lost himself. Whether we rely on Hamlet’s “Words without thought to Heaven never go,” or the deductive Cogito of Descartes, whatever one is doing, it must be with purpose, and it must be with discipline.

Lastly, the ideal I have found to be of most exhilarating worth is the basic early existential concept of freedom, responsibility and choice. It continues on from the above: we are what we do; we end only where our actions lead us. She speaks of different types of people-ones who exist in a simply content state in their everyday lives, lacking attention and self-awareness. There are others, then, who live in an entirely different place: one of extreme focus, attentiveness and in possession of an extraordinary need to develop. When the latter engage in literature, a piece of music or in some sort of academia, they are engaged. One such as this is interested by their very nature. Life is entirely what we may draw from it, never the other way around. Ingrained in humanity is the potential to produce; to create great things. But one may not have only talent, or only technique, one must have the devout ardency and will to arrive. Valéry stated specifically, “It depends on you, o passer-by, whether I am tomb or treasury. It depends on you, friend; do not enter without desire.”

            In personal response, I found the conclusion of the dialogue to be incredibly poignant, and sadly little-known truth. The main metaphysical questions-how do we know, what do we know, and what can we know-about life, love and music, she answers with painful yet simplistic candor. It is the Socratic coming of age, and it is but the very wise who may say:

 

                        “You’re pushing me…You’re asking me to lay down truths…I’m simply amazed to have some intuitions…I have to admit that I do not know. And when I say I do not know, I am proclaiming a great victory for thought. I do not know, therefore I think along better and more essential lines, because when I do know, I am aware that it’s only in a human measure. I know all the notes, do re mi so…semi-quavers and so on…I can analyse everything. But one page, one line, one bar of Schubert, I do not know.”


[1] Monsaingeon, Bruno. Mademoiselle. (London: Carcanet Press Limited, 1985) 13.

Why Beauty Exists: The Neuroscience of Curiosity

I’ve come across a wonderful post over at Lapidarium Notes this morning and cannot help but share. Originally written by Jonah Lehrer in his blog (The Frontal Cortex) Jonah puts forth an speculative (albeit intriguing) theory as to the literal faculty of why beauty exists.

Upon initial reading, I’m taken back to working through my introductory thought process on Hegel’s Philosophy of Art. At first glance, to be completely honest, not only does it seem a bit of a narcissistically beaten-horse, I’ve simply come so near to believing (more than once) that the whole discussion is better left to Kantian scholars of aesthetics; and for the good of the academy, I simply best stay out of it. Au contraire, enter the reason I love plasticity and neuroscience in the first place: with a little dissection, a lot of faith and a very open mind-the potential of our neuronal comprehension is, at this point at least, limitless.

It also brings into play a fundamental reason why I become giddy at the overlap of philosophy, psychology and neuroscience: pragmatism! “Speculative” as Jonah’s theory may be, the minute you bring in data from fMRI and PET scanners, things become a bit more serious. Neuroscience (for me) is a way of turning  highly theoretical abstracts (philosophy) into possibly more practical endeavors (clinical psychology).  Now, before I am the target of hate emails, I am not saying philosophy is not practical, by all means, I find it very much so. I’m speaking in the context more in the arena of bettering the all-encompassing, easily accessible acculturation of society by means we may find in a clinical (or neurologically educational) setting. Jonah has done (as per usual) a splendid job of combining the concepts of arousal, the ‘mental itch’ that is the curiosity of an inquisitive mind, and the usefulness of beauty as learning signal, emotional reminder, and motivational force.

Before I go on and let Jonah explain the study far better than myself, I will say one thing more. Ironically enough, I pin the very moment I knew I wanted to study music and neuroscience concurrently to him. I remember so clearly-a friend had sent me a blank email, except for the link to the post. I often ignore such things, but the respect I had for them academically prompted me to do otherwise. I’ll never forget that evening sitting at my laptop at the local pizza joint reading that article and knowing this is what I had to do. The post, entitled The Neuroscience of Music, can be found here.

The following is taken directly from Jonah’s blog post Why Does Beauty Exist?

Curiosity

“Here’s my (extremely speculative) theory: Beauty is a particularly potent and intense form of curiosity. It’s a learning signal urging us to keep on paying attention, an emotional reminder that there’s something here worth figuring out. Art hijacks this ancient instinct: If we’re looking at a Rothko, that twinge of beauty in the mOFC is telling us that this painting isn’t just a blob of color; if we’re listening to a Beethoven symphony, the feeling of beauty keeps us fixated on the notes, trying to find the underlying pattern; if we’re reading a poem, a particularly beautiful line slows down our reading, so that we might pause and figure out what the line actually means. Put another way, beauty is a motivational force that helps modulate conscious awareness. The problem beauty solves is the problem of trying to figure out which sensations are worth making sense of and which ones can be easily ignored.

Let’s begin with the neuroscience of curiosity, that weak form of beauty. There’s an interesting recent study from the lab of Colin Camerer at Caltech, led by Min Jeong Kang. (…)

The first thing the scientists discovered is that curiosity obeys an inverted U-shaped curve, so that we’re most curious when we know a little about a subject (our curiosity has been piqued) but not too much (we’re still uncertain about the answer). This supports the information gap theory of curiosity, which was first developed by George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon in the early 90s. According to Loewenstein, curiosity is rather simple: It comes when we feel a gap “between what we know and what we want to know”. This gap has emotional consequences: it feels like a mental itch. We seek out new knowledge because we that’s how we scratch the itch.

The fMRI data nicely extended this information gap model of curiosity. It turns out that, in the moments after the question was first asked, subjects showed a substantial increase in brain activity in three separate areas: the left caudate, the prefrontal cortex and the parahippocampal gyri. The most interesting finding is the activation of the caudate, which seems to sit at the intersection of new knowledge and positive emotions. (For instance, the caudate has been shown to be activated by various kinds of learning that involve feedback, while it’s also been closely linked to various parts of the dopamine reward pathway.) The lesson is that our desire for more information – the cause of curiosity – begins as a dopaminergic craving, rooted in the same primal pathway that responds to sex, drugs and rock and roll.

I see beauty as a form of curiosity that exists in response to sensation, and not just information. It’s what happens when we see something and, even though we can’t explain why, want to see more. But here’s the interesting bit: the hook of beauty, like the hook of curiosity, is a response to an incompleteness. It’s what happens when we sense something missing, when there’s a unresolved gap, when a pattern is almost there, but not quite. I’m thinking here of that wise Leonard Cohen line: “There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.” Well, a beautiful thing has been cracked in just the right way. (Italics mine)

Beautiful music and the brain

The best way to reveal the link between curiosity and beauty is with music. Why do we perceive certain musical sounds as beautiful? On the one hand, music is a purely abstract art form, devoid of language or explicit ideas. The stories it tells are all subtlety and subtext; there is no content to get curious about. And yet, even though music says little, it still manages to touch us deep, to tittilate some universal dorsal hairs.

We can now begin to understand where these feelings come from, why a mass of vibrating air hurtling through space can trigger such intense perceptions of beauty. Consider this recent paper in Nature Neuroscience by a team ofMontreal researchers. (…)

Because the scientists were combining methodologies (PET and fMRI) they were able to obtain a precise portrait of music in the brain. The first thing they discovered (using ligand-based PET) is that beautiful music triggers the release of dopamine in both the dorsal and ventral striatum. This isn’t particularly surprising: these regions have long been associated with the response to pleasurable stimuli. The more interesting finding emerged from a close study of the timing of this response, as the scientists looked to see what was happening in the seconds before the subjects got the chills.
I won’t go into the precise neural correlates – let’s just say that you should thank your right nucleus accumbens the next time you listen to your favorite song – but want to instead focus on an interesting distinction observed in the experiment:

fMRI and PET results,

In essence, the scientists found that our favorite moments in the music – those sublimely beautiful bits that give us the chills – were preceeded by a prolonged increase of activity in the caudate, the same brain area involved in curiosity. They call this the “anticipatory phase,” as we await the arrival of our favorite part:

Immediately before the climax of emotional responses there was evidence for relatively greater dopamine activity in the caudate. This subregion of the striatum is interconnected with sensory, motor and associative regions of the brain and has been typically implicated in learning of stimulus-response associations and in mediating the reinforcing qualities of rewarding stimuli such as food.

In other words, the abstract pitches have become a primal reward cue, the cultural equivalent of a bell that makes us drool. Here is their summary:

The anticipatory phase, set off by temporal cues signaling that a potentially pleasurable auditory sequence is coming, can trigger expectations of euphoric emotional states and create a sense of wanting and reward prediction. This reward is entirely abstract and may involve such factors as suspended expectations and a sense of resolution. Indeed, composers and performers frequently take advantage of such phenomena, and manipulate emotional arousal by violating expectations in certain ways or by delaying the predicted outcome (for example, by inserting unexpected notes or slowing tempo) before the resolution to heighten the motivation for completion.

While music can often seem (at least to the outsider) like an intricate pattern of pitches – it’s art at its most mathematical – it turns out that the most important part of every song or symphony is when the patterns break down, when the sound becomes unpredictable. If the music is too obvious, it is annoyingly boring, like an alarm clock. (Numerous studies, after all, have demonstrated that dopamine neurons quickly adapt to predictable rewards. If we know what’s going to happen next, then we don’t get excited.) This is why composers introduce the tonic note in the beginning of the song and then studiously avoid it until the end. They want to make us curious, to create a beautiful gap between what we hear and what we want to hear.

To demonstrate this psychological principle, the musicologist Leonard Meyer, in his classic book Emotion and Meaning in Music (1956), analyzed the 5th movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. Meyer wanted to show how music is defined by its flirtation with – but not submission to – our expectations of order. To prove his point, Meyer dissected fifty measures of Beethoven’s masterpiece, showing how Beethoven begins with the clear statement of a rhythmic and harmonic pattern and then, in an intricate tonal dance, carefully avoids repeating it. What Beethoven does instead is suggest variations of the pattern. He is its evasive shadow. If E major is the tonic, Beethoven will play incomplete versions of the E major chord, always careful to avoid its straight expression. He wants to preserve an element of uncertainty in his music, making our brains exceedingly curious for the one chord he refuses to give us. Beethoven saves that chord for the end.

According to Meyer, it is the suspenseful tension of music (arising out of our unfulfilled expectations) that is the source of the music’s beauty. While earlier theories of music focused on the way a noise can refer to the real world of images and experiences (its “connotative” meaning), Meyer argued that the emotions we find in music come from the unfolding events of the music itself. This “embodied meaning” arises from the patterns the symphony invokes and then ignores, from the ambiguity it creates inside its own form. “For the human mind,” Meyer writes, “such states of doubt and confusion are abhorrent. When confronted with them, the mind attempts to resolve them into clarity and certainty.” And so we wait, expectantly, for the resolution of E major, for Beethoven’s established pattern to be completed. This nervous anticipation, says Meyer, “is the whole raison d’etre of the passage, for its purpose is precisely to delay the cadence in the tonic.” The uncertainty – that crack in the melody – makes the feeling.

Why the feeling of beauty is useful

What I like about this speculation is that it begins to explain why the feeling of beauty is useful. The aesthetic emotion might have begun as a cognitive signal telling us to keep on looking, because there is a pattern here that we can figure out it. In other words, it’s a sort of a metacognitive hunch, a response to complexity that isn’t incomprehensible. Although we can’t quite decipher this sensation – and it doesn’t matter if the sensation is a painting or a symphony –the beauty keeps us from looking away, tickling those dopaminergic neurons and dorsal hairs. Like curiosity, beauty is a motivational force, an emotional reaction not to the perfect or the complete, but to the imperfect and incomplete. We know just enough to know that we want to know more; there is something here, we just don’t what. That’s why we call it beautiful.”

 Jonah Lehrer, American journalist who writes on the topics of psychology, neuroscience, and the relationship between science and the humanities, Why Does Beauty Exist?, Wired science, July 18, 2011

When The Bottles Break

In light of the decision to begin sharing bits of my personal work when it relates to music as a whole, here is another bit from my reel. I opted to shoot the first 16mm music video in my undergrad film department in lieu of my senior vocal recital. I have never regretted it.

 

 

 

Song written and performed by Thomas Villarreal

Directed by Diana Hereld

Photography by Dave Sweetman

Production Asst. Savannah Shealy

Feat. Nicole Wilson-Murphy

 

 

 

Edited by Diana Hereld

Photography by Josh Dowdy

“Dance Class” written and performed by Asche and Spencer for the film “Stay.”

 

The Artist’s Unconscious, The Metaphor of Birth and Waking Life

Every now and again during the inevitable agony of cultivating, constructing, and evaluating the creative process, the artist finds they’ve become “stuck.” Trapped in the limbo of their piece, somewhere between conception and establishment, they are striving for the “release” of sorts. Just as the actor or musician diligently prepares for a performance, somewhere between the realization and the execution, everything we’ve known and bred must be let go with the wind. This concept can seem painfully simple, cliché and worst of all, beaten to death. I can assure you, it is not the rudimentary discussion you might think.

It’s a beyond well-known fact that we as evolving humans use a shamefully small percentage of our potential intellect and brain-function capacity*; but how do we relate this to our unconscious? From beginning to end in the creative journey, how often do we actually realize to rely on and draw from unseen layers?

In this more in-depth analysis, Dr. Cheryl Arutt gives a fascinating discussion of the artist and the unconscious using the metaphor of birth that is truly carried out to the end. This article may be found here.

*Note: I am not trying to give way to the common myth that we only use ten percent of our brain (Beyerstein, 1999). However, we have approximately 100-150 billion neurons in our brain, with each neuron connecting to about 10,000 others. If every single neuron connected with every single other neuron, our brain would be roughly 12.5 miles in diameter (Nelson and Bower, 1990) and close to the size of London.

A Reflection On Grief and Fear

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”

-C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

My father died two weeks ago, during this hour, today. Yesterday would have been his birthday. During the past month, I’ve flown to Seattle and back three times, to be with him, and two days ago for his funeral. I’ve never felt something quite exquisitely distressing as the loss of my dad. It’s not a stabbing, unbearable pain, as one might feel when they are hurt or abandoned by a lover… but more a confusion. A frantic, desperate confusion, and emptiness. All of the clichés I have witnessed over the years now begin to make malevolent sense with sickening clarity.

“I feel as if I’m falling and can’t see the ground.”

“It’s like I’m in a daze.”

“I roam the house, searching for any piece of them left behind, but am left ever with nothing. Not a trace.”

All of these cruel notions, I feel. I go about my days. I continued teaching lessons the morning after he died. I’ve more distracting plates spinning than I can count-but the slightest thing, like a visual in the grocery store of a father holding his daughter’s hand sends me into a silent, trapped hysteria.

But then, there is something else. There are the other clichés; the one’s that I’ve found to be far more detrimental:

“Try not to think about it.”

“You have to keep busy.”

“He’s in a better place.”

It’s not that these aren’t wholly appreciated, and stem exclusively from a caring love. But I’m learning something-it almost flawlessly separates the ones who have felt this pain from the ones who have not. The ones who have lost one such as this? They sit. They listen. They cry with you. And occasionally, you are blessed to receive those beautiful words: “You will get through this. Everything will be alright.” By saying this, instead of minimizing or overshadowing the loss, aftershock and long-lingering effects, you have not only joined the bereaved where they kneel, you have acknowledged their pain and thus bore witness to their anguish. You have given them what they possibly need the very most: the immediate motivation to continue to live.

It’s funny, what we see in movies and television. A month or so ago, I watched the first episode of Six Feet Under (which I swiftly found to be a poor judgment call at the time). But we see these. We see the woman receive the phone call alerting her that her husband has been killed. We see her throw her pots and pans, and ultimately crumple to the floor. We witness this motion in action in Hollywood and Music…and yet it can’t prepare us for when you get that call.

When my mother called me at 6:30 pm Monday, August 1st, I had readied myself, but not for so soon. I had just flown back to LA the night before! It didn’t matter. She said “Diana,” her voice cracked, and my body immediately shut down. I don’t believe I cried, I just remember immediately calling a friend, getting a voicemail, and sitting down. Around 11pm, I received a kind text from someone, and went to bed. What interests me about this? It’s not me. I am an emotional, extroverted, open person. When I feel something, I say it. I feel it to the highest degree. But this? The prospect of losing my daddy? It’s like I’m acting the one way I could not have foreseen: utterly emotionally trapped.

The scariest aspect of this for me is that it’s my greatest childhood fear come to life. From as long as I can remember, to the time I was about 17, I had a dream, recurring being a mild way to describe it. It began as the typical Jungian archetype of the sensation of screaming, but no sound could be heard. Running away from something, but the use of my legs was lost. It always ended with me throwing myself on the ground, and giving up. I couldn’t cause action or motion with any of my faculties, so I gave up. Around then, I would wake, crawl back into bed from the ground, and try to forget.

If we view this from an artist’s perspective, it becomes a bit more interesting. What is the artist’s greatest need? To express themselves, regardless of the possible noble or ill intended outcome. What, then, should be the artist’s greatest fear? The inability to articulate what they deem critical. It is these thoughts that have plagued my mind in recent days, and will reflected upon again in this medium soon, hopefully with a type of resolution to my own shortcomings.

Channeling Emotional Intensity in the Creative Artist

Thanks to Cheryl Arutt for one of the best, most easily accessible articles I’ve seen on channeling pain in the artist, including some brief (albeit great) insight into the chemical process that stimulates fight-or-flight syndrome. Find it here.

Hegel and The Philosophy of Art : Part 1

It has somewhat violently come to my attention over the past couple of years that my ideas on Diana's old art cornerthe origin and meaning of art in general result in a bit of a clash and breakdown not only theoretically, but pragmatically in everyday practice. Though my gut reaction has typically been to tread lightly on the visible exterior and remain privately faithful to my own stubborn intuitions, it is not difficult to predict the inevitable destruction that not-so-patiently awaits me there. It proves dangerous territory not only in terms of intellectual risk, but in that as a musician and professional the implications and repercussions of the outcome are tremendous. The time has come to devastate my philosophy: it cannot only suffer the dismantle/repair, it must be rebuilt from the bottom up.

What is art, then? Where does it come from? It is action or motion, necessarily existent ex-something or other, or reaction? Can it be borne solely via some lofty internal emotion, or must it come from a type of universal awareness and harmony?  One question is easily answered: it is not derived simply of motion; it is action. At it’s very base art requires consciousness, therefore it cannot lie in the solely biological and animal aspect. It must assemble from the neurological and symbolic: the heart of dramatism.[i]

One catastrophic event in particular that has become almost the norm for some is the temptation to jump ahead of oneself and ask the “what may” and “what should” questions before coming to grips with the act and the purpose (the “what is” and “why”). As in any philosophic, psychoanalytic or scientific quest, if one does not set out from the very beginning with all unfounded assumptions aside, the task’s entire integrity becomes vulnerable to limitation and error. If the terms of the hypothesis are not clearly understood, by the time one attempts at an end result the outcome can only be adulterated.

So I find myself here again: Where does art originate?  In Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics, he states the following:

“At the very origin of art there existed the tendency of the imagination to struggle upward out of nature into spirituality. But, as yet, the struggle consisted in nothing more than a yearning of the spirit, and, insofar as this failed to furnish a precise content for art, art could really be of service only in providing external forms for mere natural significations, or impersonal abstractions of the substantial inner principle which constitutes the central point of the world.”[ii]

He goes on to express that though it may have begun this way, it does not remain so. His notions on Classic Art assert that spirituality now realizes the basis and principle of content: it becomes external form. By the union of the spiritual and idealization of the natural, it would seem that “Classic Art” makes up the perfect and absolute personification of the ideal.

But already I am ahead of myself. I am yet unequipped to venture into the differences in Classic, Romantic, Symbolic Art or formalism until I better understand where (on or apart from earth) it comes from. As I work my way through Hegel’s Philosophy of Art[iii], I will continue to share my findings and ideas (and hopefully one day, a re-born concept of what art should be).

For now, I leave you with a glimpse of inexpressible significance to me as I sort through these issues. Poor is what I am, but if I am forced to take what I cannot yet afford, I shall continue to steal from the richest-


[i] Kenneth Burke. The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

[ii] Hegel, G.W.F.. “Of the Romantic Form of Art.” Lectures on Aesthetics. Trans. Bernard Bosanquet. Ed. and intro. Michael Inwood. Harmdondsworth: Penguin, 1993.

[iii] Hegel, G.W.F. The Philosophy Of Art. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 2006