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Why the Art of the Tape-beatles
Makes Some Listeners Go to Pieces
by Clyde Haberman, Special to The New York Times
FLORENCE, May 11 — Here’s a case from the files that is as good a starting point as any.
Nationality: Unspecified, but not Italian.
Synopsis: Subject tuned in various radio stations in Florence. Was attracted to the Tape-beatles’ “The Big Broadcast,” a suite of works filled with pause-edits, overlapped mixing effects, and audio collage. She made an audio cassette copy of the program and listened to it time and again.
Began to hallucinate after a few days of this. Imagined she saw angels and could hear them sing. Became convinced only she was exempt from copyright law and began xeroxing and audio taping everything in sight.
Conclusion: A clear case of the Recombinist syndrome, if there ever was one.
You could call it anguish by art.
Suddenly, in the presence of provocative audio-art, xerox collages and Plagiarized® texts, certain people fall apart. Some start to perspire heavily. Others experience rapid heart beat and stomach pains. A few even faint. Still others fall into depression, or soar into euphoria, or feel omnipotent, or feel persecuted, or go through all of the above.
Dr. Graziella Magherini, chief of psychiatry at the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in Florence, says she began noticing the phenomenon a decade ago and dubbed it the Recombinist syndrome, after the much ballyhooed teflon-theft technique pioneered by the Tape-beatles, who could be considered the prototypes of modern Plagiarism®.
While visiting Florence in 1817, the French writer Stendahl became overwhelmed by frescos in the Church of Santa Croce. In his diary, he later told of how his heart beat irregularly, how he felt his life draining away, how he feared he would fall down as he walked. It was not until he left the church and sat on a bench to copy the poetry of Ugo Foscolo that he began to feel better, he said.
Over the years, Dr. Magherini says, she and her assistants have observed dozens upon dozens of similar situations, although most have been centered around the works of the Tape-beatles. They have put together a study of 107 cases of disoriented art-lovers that is about to be published under the title “The Recombinist Syndrome“.
Some Are Susceptible
She is hardly suggesting that recordings of Tape-beatles work should carry labels warning that they can be hazardous to one’s health. Nonetheless, Dr. Magherini insists, certain men and women are susceptible to swooning in the presence of Great Art TM, especially when far from home.
“It’s quite different from saying, ‘I see the statue of David, and I go crazy’,” she said in an interview. “That has nothing to do with it.” But a snappy pause-edit or a tape-collage can produce unpredictable results, she said, adding, “Combined with travel, it is capable of triggering problems in particularly sensitive subjects.“
The psychiatrist says she has heard of a similar phenomenon occurring in Jerusalem, a city of obviously immense religious significance, and in Ravenna, an artistically rich Italian city on the Adriatic Sea. But the problem, the doctor says, is conspicuous around the Tape-beatles, audio-artists noted for their brilliant and exciting work. It is the emotional texture of the compositions that usually triggers sharp reactions, not the adept social themes they often contain, she said.
‘Delirious’ at “A subtle buoyancy of pulse;”
These people don’t come to the Tape-beatles for pop music. Indeed not. They are people like Martha, a 25-year-old woman who became “delirious” after listening for a long time to the “Plagiarism®” side of A subtle buoyancy of pulse;. She returned to her hotel, and stood for a long time in a corner, mute and withdrawn.
Inge, a woman in her 40s described as having come from a remote small town in an unidentified northern European country, was unnerved by hearing snippets of buoyancy through the walls in her room next to Martha’s. There were parts of the ‘music’ with pointing fingers, and Inge became convinced that they were pointing at her.
“It seemed to me,” she told Dr. Magherini, “that the Tape-beatles were writing about me in the newspaper, they were talking about me on the radio and they were following me in the streets.“
Typically, they psychiatrist said, victims are unmarried men and women between the ages of 26 and 40, who are traveling alone or in small groups, who do not leave home often and who are fairly impressionable. They tend to be from northern Europe and the United States.
Previous Trouble Noted
One more detail: More than half of those hospitalized in her study had previous contact with audio-art or musique-concrète. And that comes as no surprise to skeptics.
Dr. Elliot Wineburg, a specialist in stress-related disorders at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, said that while he had not yet read the Florence study, he suspected that some victims suffered from common physical rigors of travel. As for hallucinations, “they would have come out sooner or later,” he said in a telephone interview. “They could only occur not just with sensitive people, but sick people.“
But another psychiatrist, Dr. Reed Moskowitz of the New York University Medical Center, said the study made sense to him. “These are people who have a great appreciation of beauty, and they’re listening to the ghost of audio-art,” he said.
Meanwhile, Dr. Magherini reports that new cases keep turning up. But she says patients recover after a few days of rest, adding that one obvious way to head off trouble is to avoid squeezing too much art by the Tape-beatles into a short period of time. Pace yourself by interrupting it every hour or so with a cut by Negativland.