Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Stendhal Syndrome


I'd hate to suffer from this. According to the unverified Wiki entry, the Stendhal syndrome is a "psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place."

Can you imagine listening to a beautiful piece of music and hallucinating as a result? (Well, when I put it that way, it doesn't actually sound too bad. Might even be worth a try. Hmmm, is there a way to induce this?)

If I suffered from this syndrome I'd miss out on all kinds of great stuff, including, of course Ennio Morricone's score to the Argento-directed 1996 eponymous film, La sindrome di Stendhal.

A review of the Blu-ray edition of this film describes the score as a "beautifully haunting," and that's a good way to put it. (Interestingly, the Wiki entry on the film states that the "eerie music score for the film follows the same tune played either forward or backward.)

Other than the hypnotic main theme there's some aggressive instrumentation, strange vocal overlays (including, for instance, one track for solo voice and whispers). Plenty of unusual sounds blend in to the mix, which tends to bounce from permutations of the main theme to high-pitch, dissonant outings.

When I heard the main theme, specially as presented in Track 4, "Canto for Alexis," I was struck by how familiar it sounded. A short while later I discovered why. There's an underlying similarity with another Morricone theme, that for Grace in his score to Oliver Stone's much maligned but impeccably crafted U Turn. (I'm sure these are not the only instances in Morricone's enormous body of work where it appears, but they were the first to connect in my mind).

Below you'll find a track from each score so you can compare for yourself (go to 1"45 on the first track and, say, 2"30 on the second). To me this comparison reveals one of the many reasons Morricone is a master. Starting from similar melodic premises, he fashions two completely different soundscapes, altering the roughness of the sonic textures, the tempos, the orchestration, the depth. Every detail is designed just so to project the film's psychological space, to make it physically manifest in a way that unequivocally fuses it with its physical setting.



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