According to Ford, women would have greatly benefited from singing along with the sound of the harmonica; in fact, the voice would have been attracted to the pure, transparent sound and would have been contaminated by it by becoming crystalline.
The vitrified voice embedded the woman in a frighteningly angelic and static imagery, perfectly in line with the condition of the ancient woman, encased in bodices of bone, mounded in the layers of her petticoats.
The voice of the ideal feminine is fragile, high-pitched, disembodied, and thus loses fluidity, making the sound material, usually juxtaposed with air or water, something rigid. Rigid, flawless, ready to shatter into painful shards.
Yet, in reality, Franklin’s armonica sounds not at all “disembodied,” for under each note one hears the pull and scrape of a finger stroke against the glass disk. More precisely, one could say that the sound breaks down into two constituent parts, with the scrape “underneath” and the pure sound “above,” as each tone separates into material trace and abstract tone. The vocal effect Ford praises derives from the dramatic difference between the instrument’s upper and lower ranges. The sound becomes increasingly weak and coarse as the pitch descends: the percussive “pulling” or scraping effect grows more pronounced as the pitched sound becomes fainter, and the lowest registers produce muffled tones whose pitch is muted, almost an echo. Only the soprano register escapes the percussive undertone, sounding clear and flutelike. Thus the armonica is not simply “bodiless”; rather it makes audible the process of spirit transcending body, the sublimation of rough, corporealized sound into ideal (feminine) voice.
It is suggestive to think that the transcendence of sound was divided between a bright, shining component and the sound of a scratch.
The action of playing corresponded to a note and a wound, and the two aspects could not be separated because they were generated by the same cause, the same movement. The harmonica summed up the pain and spiritual expectations towards women in a single sound: becoming the mirror of the male soul, lending itself to violent projection.
The harmonica also had the unique characteristic of allowing the musician to hold a pose, to simulate immobility, balance and silence. Visually, the illusion was that women were not really playing, similarly to pictorial representations where one could see their fingers resting on the instruments but without realistically pressing the keys. Hence the instrument managed to reconcile two contradictory desires: to hear the women play and to see them in a graceful, relaxed pose.
Playing is intrinsically connected to a knowledge of the body, to a sensory involvement, and as much as a certain celestial mastery was required of the muse, the fact that her body could be deformed in the breath, or stretched over the keys of a piano was an inappropriate reminder of her humanity.
Moreover, the very structure of the harmonica allowed the beginner to avoid the awkward and clumsy sounds that characterise the early stages of acquiring technical competence.
The male desire was bewildered when faced with the first attempts to play a violin, attempts that generated tremulous and out-of-tune notes, and which could continue for years before becoming attractive. In the case of the harmonica, on the other hand, one only had to touch the rotating crystal and a pure and precise sound was effortlessly generated.
This had an equally significant consequence: the absence of distinction between the amateur musician and the virtuoso.
While other instruments featured the ongoing risk that a musician would become so skilled that she would be enraptured by her own playing and allow herself to be carried away in overly energetic performances, the harmonica guaranteed ‘parlour’ sounds and did not allow any kind of technicality that could be considered unladylike. The musician’s skill was connected more to a calm and spiritual attitude than to bodily competence.
Even the most recognised performers were considered on the basis of the purity they emanated, rather than innovation or expressiveness. Staticity permeated every part of the performance: the sound did not vary in intensity, the body did not move, the soul was calm and relaxed.
In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the world of the angels is likened to that of the animals. Both are confined to a state of stillness: animals incapable of self-consciousness, angels confined in their apparent perfection.
Men, although at a lower stage of spiritual evolution than angelic beings, are closer to the Absolute because they are endowed with the possibility of change.
Angels are considered bestial precisely because they cannot realise that there is something more than perfection. They will never reach that blissful Nothingness that awaits the enlightened men. Trapped in their own perfection, they are condemned to a limbo full of grace.
No wonder, then, that women are given the most atrocious gift: angelicity, understood as the ‘impossibility of expression and mutation, of even being a shadow’.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the other reason women were associated with the glass harmonica was a substance called ‘animal magnetism’.
Animal magnetism was a theory of the German physician Franz Mesmer, who claimed that illnesses were generated by blockages in a vital fluid that responded to the same laws of electromagnetic attraction that could be observed in magnets. Unlike magnets, however, this fluid did not respond to the effects of magnetic fields, but to other “bodies”.
Basically during treatment the patients would fall into a ‘magnetic sleep’ during which Dr Mesmer would make gestures that would alter the flow of animal magnetism, bringing it back to a harmonious state. Initially he used various instruments to channel his magnetism: ropes, metal rods, pieces of wood and magnets, only to realise that his hands were enough. Like an orchestra conductor, he directed the patients’ vital flow from afar.
“ He did not have to use the body or appeal to the rational mind, but rather manipulated the ether visible current said to circulate through and around all living things. Harmonica’s sound was a perfect analogy for these “waves” of animal mag which were also invisible, perceptible, penetrating, and hard to resist”
The harmonica played a prominent role in Mesmeric séances and sessions, as the instrument seemed to speak directly to the soul, without the mediation of ‘relational’ elements such as words, musical notation or conscious creative work (indeed, Mesmer claimed to produce his most powerful effects when improvising with the harmonica). Entering his studio must have been an evocative experience: in the centre of the living room was a huge pool of clear, still water, and the celestial sound of the glass harmonica was omnipresent, at all hours of day and night.
The feminine sensitivity was suitable to being stirred by the sound of glass, which was said to have healing effects on the nervous system, and to facilitate the mesmeric healing operation. But that same association with the feminine, which made the harmonica famous, became a source of scorn for the next generation.
Wasn’t sensitivity dangerously close to frailty of nerves? To madness? Not in the more dignified sense reserved for artists and thinkers who collapsed under the weight of their own genius, but as instability due to a lack of strength of spirit. The harmonica began to be disregarded for the same reasons it had long been admired: the instrument sounded too ‘young’, immature because of its lack of low register. Coleridge also complained about the timbre, which affected the emotionality so much that it prevented the intellect from concentrating on harmony and composition.
The harmonica followed Mesmer’s descent in popularity, increasingly ridiculed for his unscientific techniques, and ended its parable with a sullied reputation: from being an allegory of purity and perfection, it became the instrument of madness.
Donizetti went so far as to compose a scene from Lucia di Lammermore entrusting the harmonica with the representation of madness:
The autograph score shows that Donizetti first conceived the scene with an offstage armonica accompanying the deranged Lucia as she enters the hall after the murder of her unwelcome husband. The spectacle of the dishevelled and distracted girl in her trance state, seeing visions and attuned to otherworldly voices, recalls earlier scenes of Mesmeric “crisis.” Crossing the literal threshold into the hall, she hovers on the border between waking and trance, between sanity and delirium, even between life and death. The otherworldly tones make a sort of nimbus around Lucia, insulating her from the shock and pity of the crowd. The armonica’s dolce suono first reminds her of Edgardo’s voice and then supplies the armonia celeste of her wedding hymn. Singing a private song, guided by an ethereal orchestra that only she can hear, Lucia enters into an altered state where reality cannot follow
The latest revenge of the glass harmonica was being in the background of a crime at the hands of one unhappy wife.
In her book ‘Female Aggression’, Marina Valcarenghi explains with great clarity the impact of suppressing aggression on the female psyche. The (apparent) absence of that vital force, essential for self-realisation, becomes illness, confusion, depression. Sometimes it is replaced by compensations: superficial manifestations of anger, devouring maternal feelings, narcissism.
Tragically, analysis often considers this psychic imbalance not as the result of systemic violence but as a natural state of the female mind, more inclined to care, gentleness, passivity and above all to putting others before oneself. (I must have said “I love her more than myself” at least once).
At one point in the book in particular I paused, struck by a profound resonance.
Valcarenghi describes an encounter with a woman suffering from psychosis, which made her absolutely certain that she was conversing with Leonardo Da Vinci.
“What did you talk about?”
“About the search for the meaning of life, about art, politics, God, world peace, the important things.”
“You have a particular fondness for Leonardo?”
“I would say yes, and boundless admiration because he is multifaceted, he flies high, he thinks about important things.”
“You were telling me that you had met him other times too?”
“Yes, one other time and he was dressed in a very extraordinary way: he had a white cloak embroidered with gold geometric designs, a blue and white damask jacket suit and a red and purple turban with embroidery; on the table in front of him there were compasses, pencils, papers, drawings, and also strange objects of incredible beauty.”
“You often happen to talk about the meaning of life, world peace…”
“No, precisely,” he interrupted me, “practically with no one.”
The analyst approaches the psychosis without any judgement, evaluating it as psychic reality, and soon realises that she is dealing with a very talented girl, confined to a life that her family and her boyfriend had planned for her, and to which she had sadly adapted.
(What a relief, and what a pain, to be nothing).
She always wore blue.
“I like it and then I seem to be seen less”.
“Why don’t you want to be seen?”
“I feel like there is very little to be seen”.
In the course of the analysis the girl gets back on track with herself, chooses a job compatible with her passions, becomes independent, and slowly the psychosis disappears.
During one of the last sessions the patient asks what her fate will be, and the answer she is offered is significant:
Before we parted, she asked me if she could ever relapse into the crisis, as she used to call it.
“There is this possibility, you are like a crystal glass, precious and thin, but also delicate. You will have to take care of yourself by always being attentive to the life you lead, to the meaning of your days, without becoming lazy and giving in to unimportant things. Then all will be well. Madness is only pain, Giovanna, you must not be afraid of it any more, because now you know how to recognise it and how to deal with it without hiding behind the crisis any longer.”
After a few days, a drawing of a very elegant chalice arrived in the mail, in the background of the paper one could see pencil marks, vague and blurred, like fragments of broken glass.
Underneath it was written: self-portrait.
I wonder if a woman with a soul so strong to produce visions in order to be heard, could really be a crystal glass. If she had been able to endure the life they had planned for her, would she have been stronger, less crystalline?
But more than that, I was struck by the relief that the last statement brings: madness is only pain.
What to do with this constellation of anger, pain and madness?
For centuries, drawing one’s own contours, having a shape, could be transformed into having boundaries. Boundaries like the bogeyman of a hospital room, of the status of a shut-in, or of a woman abandoned and therefore destitute.
While reading the book passages, I had the feeling that an amorphous, murky heap was created in her psyche where her identity should have been; a heap as consistent as lava but deprived of its warmth. I thought back to an article about a recent discovery at Herculaneum, where a body whose brain had turned to glass was found. Beautiful to look at, it’s made of shiny black fragments that still retain the dynamism of a material that was once organic. The glass of the skull contained proteins and fatty acids which are common in the brain, as well as fatty acids typically found in the oily secretions of human hair.