Reaching into artists’ inspirations, emotions


Students in the Honors course, “Artists and Their Regions,” visited the Methodist’s Center for Performing Arts to experience how the brain responds to emotional pieces of music.  |  Jenna Frenzel/The Daily Cougar

Each spring, “Artists and Their Regions” looks at the relationship between geographical setting and creativity in conjunction with the Honors College Center for Creative Work, led by its director John Harvey.

In previous years, students have traveled to East Texas, Louisiana and Galveston. With the Methodist’s Center for Performing Arts as this year’s collaborator, the class’ off-campus aspect has been made more frequent than in past semesters.

For last week’s hospital visit, students looked at how the brain responded to preselected “emotional” pieces of music by having one student voluntarily undergo an MRI scan, much to the wonderment of her classmates.

“Language requires rapid temporal processing that music doesn’t, so the thinking goes. But (our hypothesis) is that the brain processes and can register music as quickly as language,” said Anthony Brandt, Rice associate professor of musical composition and theory and leading Methodist hospital researcher.

“Ultimately we’re approaching music as a way to access your brain, as a tool.”

The project’s findings could prove effective for people who have suffered strokes, lesions and other brain traumas.

“Coming from the opposite end of it, we’re also looking at people who develop autism and dyslexia, since what essentially happens there is that the child never completely separates language sound from meaning when developing,” Brandt said.

In addition to on-site research, students are also looking at critical historical texts such as Michel Foucault’s “The Birth of the Clinic,” which examines how social and cultural attitudes have shaped the Western approach to medicine.

“During Spring Break, we also looked at Lars von Trier’s television series “The Kingdom,” which is about a neurosurgical ward built on top of a cemetery,” Harvey said. “(It’s fictional, but) it’s another instance of how the locale influences performance, which is ultimately what we’re looking at.”

In addition to the nontraditional classroom structure, each student is researching and working on creative projects of his or her own choosing.

“I’m researching medical practices and racism,” said anthropology sophomore Eternal Lokumbe.

“I’ve found some pretty surprising facts, like that the eugenics used by the Nazis were brought to the fore by American doctors. I’m also looking at how birth control has been presented to minority groups and women of color.”

Some students’ creative projects will culminate in a performance at the hospital’s Crain Garden.

“I’m doing a violin performance,” said biochemical sophomore Ohanion, “something by Tchaikovsky. I’m doing my research paper on pre-depression and post-depression of the great classical composers, (focusing particularly on) Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.”

Other ongoing projects include a flute, piano and clarinet performance, a “tabloid as advertisement” presentation project, a short story, a long poem and research on composers with mental illness, the mental states of artists who retire and doctors who work with performance artists such as singers and dancers.

One student is working on a dream catcher with an inner circle representing the Texas Medical Center and the outer circle representing the surrounding downtown Houston area.

Students interested in enrolling in “Artists and Their Regions” in future semesters can find more information at the Center for Creative Work’s website.

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