As per my usual morning routine, last Wednesday I headed to my local coffee shop, magazines and laptop in tow. The coffee is always great at JOE and there’s an outdoor patio in the summer. My fellow patrons, however, are really what make it worth the visit. Floppy ears. Long tongues. Cold noses. Dogs upon dogs wait patiently outside as exhausted joggers and embittered retirees of the Upper West Side stop in for iced coffee. Over the course of the summer, I’ve tended to sit as far out on the patio as possible so I can best get my canine affection fix while I watch the Olympics or pretend to read the Economist (I’m now three weeks behind thanks to my furry friends).
I’m a total softy and there’s always one Irish Setter who brings it out in me. He’s not too bright, and tends to get on other dogs’s nerves. As soon as his human goes into the coffee shop, it starts: the whimpering, the moaning, the slobbering, urinating and nervous defecation all over the pavement, signalling to the entire street his acute separation anxiety. He’s pathetic yes, but so am I. As I rub his chin, he slops and drools all over my left hand, a liquid offering of nervous gratitude for keeping his company while his guardian callously neglects him for the sake of caffeine. The owner knows me by now, as I indulge the dog’s neuroses on every occasion, no matter how moist and sticky the situation. Each and every time, it’s clear from the expression on her face that she thinks I’m an idiot. She’s probably right. After all, I am a grown man who, without fail, is conned into lavishing attention on a creature incapable of looking after the disposal of its own fecal matter on the pavement (much less its saliva). In her eyes, her dog is manipulative, but I’m totally charmed.
But after last Wednesday, I’m fairly certain this dog owner’s suspicions about me were confirmed. I’m definitely a moron. Walking out of the coffee shop, she witnessed that same weird organist petting her dog, but giggling uncontrollably while looking at a computer screen. Her well rehearsed look of disapproval was especially stern today. “What’s so funny? What’s he done now?” she asked. I compose myself. “Hannibal Lecter has a harpsichord. It’s hysterical.” My attempt to explain myself to the dower dog dowager didn’t go down very well. She rather hastily took her dog and told me to enjoy my morning in a tone that really suggested that I should check myself into an institution (or just wash the doggy goo off my hands).
There’s really nothing like going on a bender and bingeing on Netflix or Amazon Prime for a few days. I usually find a show I like and slog it out as quickly as possible. Jessica Lange kicks ass in American Horror Story (even if she did mispronounce Franz Schubert: “I’m afraid shoo-bear was never your style”) and Kevin Spacey is hot in House of Cards (does anyone else remember that threesome with his wife and the secret service agent?). This week, I discovered NBC’s Hannbal. Yes, I know the show is nearly three years old, and yes, I know I live under a rock. But I don’t care. I’m hooked – the show is great.
Why? Well take look.
At Sotheby’s in New York, he purchased two excellent musical instruments, rare finds both of them. The ﬁrst was a late-eighteenth-century Flemish harpsichord nearly identical to the Smithsonian’s 1745 Dulkin, with an upper manual to accommodate Bach – the instrument was a worthy successor to the gravicembalo he had in Florence. His other purchase was an early electronic instrument, a theremin, built on the 1930s by Professor Theremin himself. The theremin had long fascinated Dr. Lecter. He had built one as a child. lt is played with gestures of the empty hands in an electronic field. By gesture you evoke its voice… (Thomas Harris, Hannibal)
That’s right. He has fucking harpsichord (and a theremin?). Dr. Lecter now rides the waves of the Historically Informed Performance movement. He’s literally HIP. He’s too refined just to eat your face while listening to the Goldberg Variations played by a pianist. No, no, no, that simply will not do. On a given summer’s evening, while he carefully ponders which recipe he’ll use to soften and purée your left kidney into a silky mousse, he’ll sit at the harpsichord and play a Sarabande by Antoine Forqueray. This, ladies and gentlemen, is Hannibal 2.0.
The show is seeping with music. All the criminals in the show love their art music. For instance you’ve got the patient who stalks Hannibal at the benefit concert of operatic arias by Handel.
Another uses your gut to make cello strings.
I’m getting off track. The intersection of the blood/gore/feats of anatomical rearrangement and musical gimmicks are just fun. For me, it’s the Forqueray that is on another level. Hannibal Lecter isn’t pretentious. He’s selective, precise, cunning and it shows up in his iTunes selections.
Permit me to geek out momentarily. Forqueray played the viola da gamba, an instrument often though to be oddly elusive, subject to artistic treatments by the likes of Gérard Depardieu and Johannes Vermeer. Having spent a life in personal service of Louis XIV (the famous “Sun King”), Forqueray and his compositions were archetypal and symbolic in his lifetime, placed alongside the output of other funny-named gambists like St. Colombe and Marin Marais. The music is flowery and highly ornamented, basking in a series of almost simplistic emotions, meant to stir the hearts of busty aristocrats caked in foundation, lipstick and fake moles – the war paint of class warfare. But no such piece by Forqueary is more evocative of the era of the powdered wig and furry facial nevus is Lecter’s piece, a sarabande from the Fourth Suite.
The score itself breathes a certain florid morbidity; even for those of you who don’t read music, you can see that there’s a firm skeletal structure, and then there are a ton of little markings and extra notes. Some say they’re like flower petals or something naturalistic, organic. But what it their natural affect is that of decay, like that of a corpse, or maybe the growth of a fungus or disease, such as the approach of murderous psychosis on the human mind (or stomach, in Hannibal’s case). I’m not convinced that this music is so flowery as I thought. It’s just a bit creepy sounding.
Forqueray’s son (who wrote the piece down for his father) left an instruction for the performer in the original edition:
Translation: To make the piece intelligible, I have marked some little crosses that indicate that the bass should be played before the melody line; and in all the places where there are no crosses, the melody must be played before the bass.
Huh. The piece is totally micromanaged. It doesn’t sound that way when you listen to it though – it sounds almost improvised and in the moment, poetic and refined in such a way that almost sounds as if it could only be a spur of the moment inspiration. It’s because no two notes ever speak at the same time – there’s a discombobulating sensation of disorganization that comes from the dictation that your hand can’t play at the same time, But the fact that you’re told exactly how your hands are meant to trip over each other with those itty-bitty symbols males it impossible to even interpret this piece in real time. It’s a piece that is to be memorized, a strange project in reproducibility (Walter Benjamin, eat your heart out). There’s absolutely nothing spur-of the moment about it. All that mushiness is just a façade.
What’s left to the performer is the pace at which it is to be enjoyed. One has to take the time to synchronize all the big notes and little notes with near surgical perfection, but once that’s done, it’s yours for the consuming. It’s a lot like a preparation for one of Hannibal Lecter’s little feasts. You have to remove the human with extreme care and perfection as not damage it, you have to eat it soon lest it spoils, you have to prepare it delicately as human organs are so fragile. The pâté made from your local mailman may taste effortless, simple, delightful – the truth is, it takes a lot to make it.
I watched some other episodes over again since last Wednesday, really listening out for the music. How often do I get to indulge in a bit of self-quizzing and dot connecting when watching a network television show? One episode really caught my attention. There were no obscure composers in this episode, such as Forqueray or any other harpsichord master. Mozart and Chopin instead illustrated Lecter’s pretty horrifying persona.
Mozart came first. Hannibal and his patient dress themselves for the day, one in a swanky apartment and the other in a psychiatric institution, mirroring each other almost perfectly as if they are the same person. It’s a consistent theme in the show, as Hannibal spends time literally trying to train up this poor patient into becoming a psychopath. But as they’re putting on their neckties and checking themselves in the mirror, an aria from Don Giovanni gently wafts through the speakers. One would expect that one of Giovanni’s arias would be used, as he’s usually considered the villain with some rather engrained psychosexual daddy issues. He’s a rapist and a murderer, whose obsession with carnal consumption verging on the demonic.
Yet it is Don Ottavio’s voice that sets the scene:
Dalla sua pace la mia dipende; On her peace of mind depends mine too,
Quel che a lei piace vita mi rende, what pleases her gives life to me,
Quel che le incresce morte mi dà. what grieves her wounds me to the heart.
S’ella sospira, sospiro anch’io; If she sighs, I sigh with her;
È mia quell’ira, quel pianto è mio; her anger and her sorrow are mine,
E non ho bene, s’ella non l’ha. and joy I cannot know unless she share it.
Ottavio is supposedly telling Donna Anna that he will avenge her father’s death, the Commendatore who killed at the hands of Don Giovanni. But notice there’s no anger in his tone. Empathy, sharing, caring – there’s some sort of affection, but really it’s just saying that he’ll do as she says. It’s would be saccharine if it weren’t so sick. George Bernard Shaw tried to flip this scene around in Man and Superman to show that Donna Anna was the real psycho, fixated in vengeance, willing to turn Ottavio into a killer to avenge her father (this is misogyny at its finest). This aria isn’t really about love – it’s about manipulation. Lecter is not like Giovanni at all – he is Donna Anna, and his patient it Ottavio. Something is so set in Ottavio, that it’s almost as if has no choice in the matter of whether to do as Donna Anna wills; he always following a musical idea set up for him, though not exactly as he would sing it. There’s no opening ritornello for his aria, introductory fare. There is merely a chord, to give him a starting note, and violas and second violins play along with him throughout the first half of the text.
In typical Mozart fashion though, there’s no need to go to a relative minor key or modulate; you just shift gears from G Major to G minor, no warning – such is the extent of Don Ottavio’s duty to Donna Anna. The strings start to play little sighs, giving him something to sigh with.
He’s totally being strung along, but his melody is so beautiful that he is blissfully unaware.
By the end of the episode, Lecter is alone, dealing with the ramifications of what’s he’s done. His patient whom he’s framed is trapped in a psychiatric hospital, increasingly turning his solitude into some emotion resembling guilt (we’re never sure with this guy). But here’s the thing: there’s nothing he can do. If he spills the beans, then the cat’s out of the bag and everyone will know he’s a toe munching Forqueray freak – we can’t have that. We need at least another couple of seasons worth of material.
That’s where Chopin comes in. For those of you who’ve seen Fifty Shades of Grey (don’t lie, you loved it really), you might recognize Chopin’s Etude no. 4 in E minor, nicknamed “Suffocation” by his companion Georges Sands. It’s depressing as hell, not because it’s emotive, washy or sweet; it’s another work set within super strict boundaries. Ice cold tension, claustrophobia, unease are there because nothing really happens in the Prelude. Even if you can’t read music in the score, you can see the repetition of patterns, looking almost completely the same for three lines of the piece (nearly half of it).
There is no real “hummable” theme, that you could sing to yourself in the shower; it’s just two notes, one shorter, one much longer, repeated over and over again at different pitch levels.
It’s almost a musical machination, as after 8 bars the repetition encloses the listeners, boxing them in. It’s hard for the pianist as well, as it says espressivo (be expressive!). But what should we express?
Should we wallow in the jail cell of repetition and show resignation? Or should we infer some personal experience – from what I can tell, suffocation isn’t particularly pleasant or desirable (unless of course, the work should be renamed auto-asphyxiation?). What do we do?
By the 9th bar, Chopin breaks free a little bit, and inserts a row of eight notes to get from G-sharp to F-sharp in bar 10. But it’s merely fleeting – the old melody returns, though the intervalic differential increases to a third (WHOAH!).
The left hand stops. Something is wrong. The right hand loses balance, and the two little note figure speeds up by a factor of 8, descending wildly before climbing up again. In the second half of the bar, there’s a quintuplet – 5 notes taking up the space where there should only be 4 (think rush hour on the train).
It staggers, but eventually brings everything back into place. Before you know it, we are right where we started.
But something has gotta give. Chopin starts to lose it, and in bar 16 takes off. The left hand falls off, we suddenly need help from the sustaining pedal. You can sort of tell it’s coming, as in bars 15-16, Chopin manages to use every note in the chromatic scale in just two bars, giving you the sense that he’s starting to lost his shit. Forte! Stretto! Chopin’s being pretty explicit that things should heat up.
But the climax is short lived, as with so many things in life. As soon as it starts, it seemingly starts to send, and we’re reminded of some essential destiny or truth that lives in those two notes that signal the return of the melody (if you can call it that).
But the ominous sense it’s all winding down doesn’t really come from the repetitious right hand, but from the bass line in the left hand. Alternating between a C and B (again, two notes right next to each other), he alternates between them, exponentially slowing down the rate at which they change:
[BB CC BBBB CCCC BBBBBBB CCCCCCCC] (2 2 4 4 8 8)
The right melody is so slow and seemingly timeless that we don’t know that the piece is literally dying according to exact mathematical proportions, as if your heart rate is dropping and your losing consciousness (I speculate!).
But right as we expect to hear maybe 16 Bs in a row, we only get eight. Uh oh. The left hand falls off again, going to a long B-flat (the note below). A mere trifle. There is a pause, and the B returns, giving us what we’re waiting for before crushingly ending in E minor.
It’s all extremely calculated and weirdly planned out, so much so that it’s totally imperceptible unless you’re looking for it. Like the mind of a psychopath, the musical score shows things that we might never consciously pick up on until we look at it closely, undistracted by the beauty of listening to the melody.
This is Hannibal Lecter all over. He’s trapped. Trapped in his habits, in his need to dominate and in his own frame of logic, unable to escape or let go lest his true nature is revealed. In NBC’s Hannibal, his demeanor is frigid and indifferent, never showing signs that he has in anyway put on a plastic suit to perform a frontal lobotomy for dessert. The music he likes, the food, the art – they all look like a man with a broad palette. But nothing could be further from the truth – everything he cooks has a strict recipe and every one of his drawings, a sense of anatomical proportion and perfection. But above all, his music satisfies the need for control. There is no improvising or fooling around. There is only anatomical perfection.
Hannibal the Musician
I suppose I feel like a bit of a phony, writing about all this. Who’s to say that Chopin’s works are any more carefully constructed than any others, or that his music is in particular more fitting for Hannibal’s general aura? I don’t think I really have an answer for that. Such is the nature of analyzing music and drawing connections that after a while you start to read tea leaves, divining meaning from any details you see.
Yet there is something fundamental about Hannibal Lecter’s personality that I somehow identify with none the less. He’s got a lot going on behind the scenes, what with killing people and harvesting their organs in a meticulous manner to ensure he doesn’t get caught. He constantly has to prepare to cover his tracks, make it look easy. Musicians are in a similar position – we practice, we physically and mentally prepare to give the impression that what we do is effortless to us. Signs of strain are not applauded, as we’re told stories of Liszt who practiced with water glasses on his hands to practice keeping them still, or Bach who supposedly could stare at like a statue while improvising a fugue.
I think that’s why all these pieces seem to illustrate the show so well (as well as countless others in episode upon episode), as they’re not just about construction, but they’re about various forms of control. One has to control the hands so independently in Forqueray that there are instructions on every beat on how to do it. The control in Mozart is such that a key center around G is never left. Chopin constructs an entire piece on two notes, constantly tottering on the edge of falling off. You have to make such careful decisions about how to perform any works like this so as not to give the game away that you’re balancing two parties in opposition: your two hands, your two key centers, your two notes, your practicing and performing mentalities. In the end, it’s hard to tell which is which by the very end. You’ve spent so long working and concealing, blending the musical experiences into one thought process that there is opposition, but no dichotomy.
So which is it? Are you the B? Or are you the C?