The Gods, however, took pity on the human race, born to suffer as it was, and gave it relief in the form of religious festivals to serve as periods of rest from its labors. They gave us the Muses, with Apollo their leader, and Dionysus; by having these gods to share their holidays, men were to be made whole again . . .
—Plato, Laws 653c
Great music was made under the guidance of Greek Muses and Christian Saints. This blog post explores order and chaos, pleasure and pain, and the role of the divine in the making of contemporary music. The ancient art of music has greatly influenced Western culture. Its roots can be tracked from Plato via Roman Catholic Christianity to contemporary society. Music producer Surfing Dino (Benoit Dequick) was inspired by Christian writer Beatrice of Nazareth to create music that pursues the heavenly joys and the hellish pains that Love afflicts on the lover. While hearing ideal heavenly music in his mind, Surfing Dino struggled with translating it into concrete everyday reality which is limited in time and space. By analyzing Plato’s views on musicial pleasure, I will reflect on the painful nature of art and music to describe Benoit’s artistic process that led up to the creation of his song called Beatrice.
Pleasure in Music (Order and Law)
In her article Music and Pedagogy in the Platonic City, Sophie Bourgault states that Plato believes that music can strengthen the education of children by shaping them be ideal citizens. She argues against an excessive scholarly focus on Plato’s metaphysics (his world of ideas) at the expense of his practical interest in the working of the city and his (cautious) approval of sensuous pleasure. Human beings are musical animals and therefore music is naturally perceived as pleasurable, especially when movement and sounds are given a certain order and harmony. According to Bourgault, music matters to Plato because it could be used in education, combining natural pleasure children experience in music with necessary understanding of conventions/principles and of order/structure which are inherent to music. When learned well and practiced in the orderly manner, children can develop moral qualitiesand habits that will assist their philosophical reflections later in life.
Music is an art based on measure, ratio and order. It has enormous power and therefore enormous potential to be good or bad. One should not make pleasure the standard by which music ought to be judged – it is only a secondary effect, according to Plato. Its virtue lies in expertise, tradition and social coherence.
He says: “no one shall sing a note or perform a dancemovement that is not in the canon of public songs” – Plato Repblic 800a
Public song create harmonic patters in the city. Harmonic patters which could also be found in the heavens: the ideal city made after divine proportions. Good music mimics these proportions, and this gives pleasure. Through music, the eternal could be made present in the space and time continuum, and, through music’s structure, we could mimic the divine proportions.
Plato’s structured city resembles Benoit’s artistic process. Benoit was working on a PhD in engineering, and experimenting with sound technology brought him closer to music. Due to his studies, he was quick to pick up this technology and create his music without any former musical training. He noted that music unlocked the creative parts of his brain, allowing him to tap into the ordered harmonious cosmos that Plato philosophized about. According to Benoit, contemporary pop music follows clear structures. While drawing on these clearly defined structures, Benoit still allowed for his own, less regimented style, challenging the clear structures of pop music He argued that creating music is a natural process, like cooking. Moreover, he stated that “Creativity challenges logics”. Benoit wanted to create new music and propose an improved order that approaches – what Plato referred to as – Beauty, heavenly harmony.
Pain in Music
Nevertheless, the translation from heavenly harmony to earthly music does not happen overnight. Often it is the a process of trial and error; a painful process of numerous frustrations. It is in the dark of night that many artists find their Muse. Benoit often felt inspired when he entered a dreamlike state. In this curious state of unconsciousness, he heard new music yet to be written down and produced. According to him, the brain is a bottomless container of musical ideas and a world of endless possibilities. Benoit, together with many artists, experienced this platonic world of Beauty and Order during translucid consciousness. Art theorist Jacques Maritain described this as:
Thus a place is prepared in the highest parts of the soul, in the primeval translucid night where intelligence stirs the images under the light of the Illuminating Intellect, for the separate Muse of Plato to descend into man, and dwell within him, and become a part of our spiritual organism. – Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry
Plato’s Muse incarnated in the human soul. For Maritain, divine inspiration becomes human illumination. According to him, the artist creates Art without any divine intervention, if he/she is willing to turn inwards and to explore the depths of the human soul. These depths are often experienced, not as a heavenly order, but as a hellish anxiety. Bataille described his encounter with the abys of existence – an artistic night of the soul – as follows:
Trembling. To remain immobile, standing, in a solitary darkness, in an attitude without the gesture of a supplicant: supplication, but without gesture and above all without hope. Lost and pleading, blind, half dead. Like Job on the dung heap, in the darkness of night, but imagining nothing – defenseless, knowing that all is lost. – George Bataille, Inner Experience
Although Benoit does not use these dramatic expressions when describing his inner experience and artistic process, the artist still acknowledged another painful experience that is related to the eternal Beauty he pursued. Pain and frustration appear when he exited the orderly world of ideas and when he tried to shape the eternal music in the here and now. To struggle with the limitations of reality is an intrinsic part of the artistic process. When leaving the world of sounds, he was trapped again in the imperfect world, which left him with a dangerous desire and an erotic craving for Beauty that cannot be grasped. Both artists and mystics call this experience exile. Although music and dance could have healing properties (a relief for the people, Plato argues), for the musician music is also painful – because he/she is not capable of capturing its perfect harmonies.
Poppies and Electrodes
Benoit used the metaphor of the poppy, noting that it resembled the melodies he received in this translucid state. When he woke up and captured the melody with his audio recorder, one petal fell down. When he then searched for musicians and singers who could perform these melodies, other petals got lost because the original music was corrupted due to technical or artistic shortcomings. At the end of the production process one petal remained, only a mere reflection of its original Beauty. He also referred to the metaphor of an electrode, which can only be seen when disturbed. Original Beauty cannot be observed, there is always corruption due to the need for mediation. Most of all, Benoit longed for an artistic process without intermediacy, a direct connection between his mind and the speakers, a well-ordered and harmonious transfer of Beauty.
BEATRICE – Project 2
A prayer to Dionysius
Benoit’s art process was very structured. He enjoyed working on a well-defined project with a limited scope. Within these parameters, he explored his creativity and searched for inspiration. Then he proceeded in a forward manner, creating a piece informed by analysis that was extracted by an inspirational idea. For the Beatrice Project Benoit was given carte blanche. He was asked to read Beatrice of Nazareth’s Seven manieren der heiliger minne and to make his own interpretation of this mystical treatise on the nature of the love relationship between God and the believer. Beatrice told an orderly yet disturbing story of a God who wounds and heals his beloved. Like Love, He is mercilessly cruel and wondrously kind at the same time. It is hard to neglect Beatrice passionate lines and her erotic desire that ran through her complete work.
Left without restrictions Benoit decided to let go of his structured approach and focus on the text’s erotic play. According to Gerardus van der Leeuw, art is both Apollonial and Dionysiac (following Nietzsche’s distinction). The art process we have talked about so far is mainly Apollonial, the structured and harmonious art Plato favored. Beatrice’s text about Love forces us to embrace the ecstatic movement of Dionysiac music. Van der Leeuw says :
Dionysiac rhythm lives ecstatically in raving dance of the dervishes and maenads. In mysticism it becomes the symbol of dissolution, of the complete loss of self in the god.
Benoit decided to deconstruct pop music’s clear structure and tell a story about Love’s fickleness through increasing musical tensions. Benoit first looked for musical textures that suited medieval mysticism: dark but not sad. He wanted to create a sphere that conjured awe. After setting the tone and opening with a mystical atmosphere, Benoit increased the tempo, like a heart beat that runs faster and faster, mimicking the increase in desire expressed in the text. He decided to follow the Dionysiac movement of music, following the heart beat that brought him further along the path of loving union.
Arriving at the end of the song, Benoit experienced a need for a drastic fracture, disrupting the logical structure of the music even further. According to Benoit the text and the music focus too strongly on the painful side of love. He argues that Love is joyful too. That is why he interrupted the music with a playful twist. He created a small intro based on an Italian translation of the lyrics. Like Beatrice’s sixth manner, this part celebrates the joyous presence of love which Benoit associated with travel, adventure and freedom shared by two lovers.
Here you can find the lyrics of Surfing Dino – Beatrice. The lyrics are inspired on the original lyrics written by dancer and writer Sheila Van den Broeck. The music was used to create the dance video called BEARTICE – Project 2. One can find a blog about the choreography and video here.
Sophie Bourgault, Music and Pedagogy in the Platonic City, in The Journal of Aesthetic Education 46 (2012) 59-72.
Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, London, The Harvill Press, 1954.
George Bataille, Inner Experience (trans. Leslie Anne Boldt), New York, State University of New York Press, 1988.
Gerardus van der Leeuw, Sacred and Profane Beauty. The Holy in Art (trans. David E. Green), Londen, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1963.