“This is my design” is what grabbed my attention.
Early in the pilot episode of the NBC series Hannibal, Will Graham visualizes a murder. Through his freakish empathy, Graham puts himself in the place of the killer, narrates the violence as he performs it in his imagination, then concludes by saying, with cold malice, “This is my design.”
Hannibal, based on Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon and produced by Bryan Fuller, is about the relationship between Graham (Hugh Dancy)—who teaches at the FBI and helps Special Agent Jack Crawford (Laurence J. Fishburne III) catch psychopaths—and psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), who is familiar through most of pop culture as Hannibal the Cannibal, played by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs movie and various sequels and prequels.
In Harris’s novel, Lecter is already in the Baltimore State Hospital of the Criminally Insane, having been apprehended by Graham. The TV show (which is now filming its third season with an expected return this spring) takes place prior, and cleverly includes and reworks important characters from that book and later ones. The show is many things: scary, beautifully filmed, “a love story,” in Fuller’s words, between Graham and Lecter.
It is also, underneath but hiding in plain sight, a show about creativity. What is powerful about Hannibal is how it presents murderous psychopathology as a creative act. The murders are shown in stunningly beautiful tableau nature morte: bodies mutilated to look like angels, others used as parts of an enormous graphic design, one held erect by the tree growing through it, flowers filling the chest cavity. Lecter is not just a cannibal but a formidable gourmet chef, and the beauty of the meals he presents, and the descriptions he gives (without mentioning the key ingredient), constantly inspires both my appetite and desire to cook. If America had a large-scale aesthetic culture, the combination of murder and beauty would be subversive and controversial.
Or, perhaps not. American pop culture has been obsessed with serial killers, their violence and psychopathology, for decades. Americans also are ravenous for music and movies and more, creative works. We admire and promote creativity. And the creative act, the design, is a one step-remove abstraction of Hannibal’s creative psychopathy, nowhere more so than in classical music.
Classical music, early to contemporary, is a composer’s genre, the pieces are their design. In Hannibal, human bodies, dead and at times alive, are the raw materials, arranged and manipulated to fulfill their killers’ vision. Composers’ raw materials are symbols on a page that lay out the design as instructions for musicians to obey and execute. (Of course Lecter is a composer and is even shown working on a fugue at his harpsichord while his parallel design, manipulating the people around him, falls into place with equal elegance and precision.)
Composers need to control their materials and, to an extent, their musicians. This is true for the murderer Gesualdo and the gentle John Cage, more so for the latter. Most composers are autocrats; Cage was totalitarian. He demanded of himself and others not only proper execution but proper thinking. And autocracy and totalitarianism, in their view of and relationship to human beings, are the political equivalents of malevolent psychopathology.
Music making, the live playing of a composition, is a social activity. It is also the point of action where individual wills collide—there is as much struggle as cooperation, and something has to give. Composer Noah Creshevsky sits at that border. Gregarious, interested in other people, generous with his time and his spirit, he found that working with musicians in preparing for concerts wasn’t to his liking. Instead, he composes music using samples, mainly of musicians playing their instruments (often custom made for him by the players), and uses those as the raw materials for his pieces. As he says, smiling and at ease, “electronic music is a way of life, it suits me.”
Creshevsky can manipulate the samples in any way he wishes without doing damage to anyone, an enormous difference between manipulating and damaging people, but that difference is the single step. Working more closely with musicians at both ends of the relationship is Matt Marks, a composer and horn player in Alarm Will Sound. It was Marks’s ravings over Hannibal on Facebook that got me watching the show, and when I mentioned this to him, he was eager to talk about how the he also thought the show “is about art, about creativity.”
We talked about where we found hints of psychopathology in music, especially the high-romantic works of Strauss, Mahler and Puccini. Mahler psychologically manipulated the musicians who played his music, a step beyond the musician as a tool to realize the composer’s design. The opening trumpet fanfare of Symphony No. 5, and the bass solo that starts the third movement of Symphony No. 1, were orchestrated in such a way to make the players feel anxiety, because Mahler wanted them to express his anxieties.
Mahler’s symphonies, which I love, are great because of their egocentricity, the seductive charisma, which psychopaths have, of one man’s thoughts about himself demanding your attention over everything else in the universe. (The most prominent current example is the My Struggle series of novels by Karl Ove Knausgaard, dense, compelling examinations of the minutiae of his internal life.) Strauss and Puccini, Marks pointed out, have this same charismatic effect on their listeners. Taken to the logical end, and you have not just Wagner but the cult of Wagnerism, followers eagerly enslaved to the charismatic seductions of a composer who cared nothing for them. And Wagner’s most prominent operatic characters—Wotan and Siegfried among them—are unbalanced and dangerous.
Marks has been thinking about these qualities, in his own music, for many years. “I’ve done settings of two letters from Albert Fish [a 1930s cannibalistic serial killer],” he elaborated. “That’s something I think about quite a lot, psychopathology and creativity.” For The Adventures of Albert Fish, Marks had to set the thoughts, values and desire of this man to music to music. How does a composer accomplish that?
“It’s so easy to have the music make moral judgments about the characters,” the same way we would be personally compelled to, Marks acknowledges. “I decided to have the music support Fish in the way he thinks about himself. That makes it unsettling enough. I had to create a fictionalized psychology, I can’t just assume he’s evil, his own thoughts and feelings are real to him.” That’s the same kind of empathy Will Graham has in the show, where he can imagine not only the actions but the rationales of psychopaths.
Marks plays other people’s music, follows their design. His experience performing is that empathy hurts the music. “As a performer, the more empathy I have for the audience, the worse I play. The less respect I have for them, the better I serve them. By ignoring the need to please them, concentrate on the music and assume their satisfaction,” he gives them a more successful performance. In everyday social settings, this disdain for other people would be pathological; in the concert hall, it’s appropriate.
Can a musician sense psychopathology in a composition? Is there room to exert a counterforce to the design of the composer? I worked backwards to pianist Kathleen Supové, also a fan of Hannibal. (She’s actually the person who turned Marks onto it.) The underlying theme of creativity in the show is clear to her: “the killing is a means to subvert the original being of the victims, to transform them into some other use.”
As a pianist, she has a fascinating, parallel idea, that “there is a violation in a piece, when the interpretation starts to get really good,” a counterdesign. “There is some sort of through line that you get with a piece that becomes yours; you take it away from the composer.”
Unsurprisingly, there is a musician in the show, the first season character Tobias. He plays and teaches stringed instruments, and makes his own gut strings out of … well, you can guess. He also commits a murder, motivated it seems by some poor trombone playing, and transforms the victim into a musical instrument.
This, and the show in general, are not as shocking to see as one would think. The murders are fascinating and attractive, and the imagination that goes into creating them is admirable. Again, this is no surprise—the show is an exact example of Edmund Burke’s concept of the sublime. In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, he writes:
The passions which belong to self-preservation, turn on pain and danger; they are simply painful when their causes immediately affect us; they are delightful when we have an idea of pain and danger, without being actually in such circumstances; this delight I have not called pleasure, because it turns on pain, and because it is different enough from any idea of positive pleasure. Whatever excites this delight, I call sublime.
This was echoed powerfully by Stockhausen, in his remarks at a press conference on September 16, 2001:
Well, what happened there is, of course—now all of you must adjust your brains—the biggest work of art there has ever been. The fact that spirits achieve with one act something which we in music could never dream of, that people practice ten years madly, fanatically for a concert. And then die. And that is the greatest work of art that exists for the whole Cosmos. Just imagine what happened there. There are people who are so concentrated on this single performance, and then five thousand people are driven to Resurrection. In one moment. I couldn’t do that. Compared to that, we are nothing, as composers. It is a crime, you know of course, because the people did not agree to it. They did not come to the ‘concert’. That is obvious. And nobody had told them: ‘You could be killed in the process.’
He was widely censured for this comment, for pointing out how compelling the worst moral failings and crimes are to us at a time when the only accepted discourse was a grandstanding fulmination against a metaphysical evil. In music, we find this sublime balance between beauty and terror in range from Schubert to Mahler to exciting and terrifying forms of heavy metal. In society, it turns out the psychopathology of the sublime is alive and well and now entrenched in our politics and de facto American values. Torture, a great evil and a heinous psychopathology, is not an aberration, it is now design. Torturers not only will suffer no sanction but have been paid for their pleasure, such as it was. Mainstream political leaders with substantial followings and public platforms embrace torture and thirst, it seems, for more.
Stockhausen understood the sublime, that the impulse to create means caressing pain and danger, and that a composer relishing the horrors of his imagination from a safe place was as nothing compared to the atrocity of mass murderer, and that along with the moral gap between imagining danger and killing people, there was a hint of moral slumming in expressing the sublime.
Human beings have always been attracted to the sublime, and since the Romantic era we have found a source of beauty that is made more profound and enduring because it allows us to be enthralled, to safely caress that dark, human, and thrillingly beautiful sense of amoral power within us, the thing that we gladly depend on civilization to keep in check for us. We go through our days being caring, thoughtful, loving citizens, partners and parents, and at night we sit down to watch Hannibal.
George Grella Jr. is a composer, critic and independent scholar. He is Music Editor at The Brooklyn Rail, publishes The Big City blog, and writes for the New York Classical Review, Jazziz, The American Record Guide, and Sequenza21.