Several years ago, I had an appointment with a neurologist. There an EEG was performed. With a hairnet of electrodes on your head, you sit in front of a strong lamp, keep your eyes closed, and are subjected to flashes. The reaction of your brain to the flashing light, which flickers at an increasing frequency, is recorded by software. I don’t remember at how many hertz it was that I suddenly saw a spiral of falling gingerbread men. I told this to the assistant who was conducting the test. “I think I see gingerbread men.” To which she replied: “We’ll try one level higher, then it’s enough.” With the light now flashing marginally more rapidly, I still saw the incredible image behind my closed eyelids: falling gingerbread men, millions of them, a whole cosmos full. I had to open my eyes, because the sight was making me dizzy.

“A visual hallucination of that sort is completely normal,” the assistant reassured me. “Most people experience something like that with this type of stimulation.”

“But why gingerbread men?” I asked.

“It’s something different for everyone,” she said. “The visual cortex is simply induced to do something. And in your case, it apparently produces gingerbread men.”

“Millions of them,” I said.

“Yes,” said the assistant.

I didn’t learn all that much from this experience, apart from the fact that now, when I hear certain music and try to visualize its structures, I can refer to a specific feeling to describe their effect. “Classic” examples of this sort of music are the famous polyrhythmic piano works by György Ligeti or Conlon Nancarrow, about which much has been written. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s final composition, Paradise for flute and electronic music (2007), the twenty-first hour of his Klang cycle, generates this feeling too; a strange, unsteady light fills this piece, to which you can hardly experience with a calm soul. Another, less frequently cited example that evokes in me the overpowering gingerbread men feeling is the music of Unsuk Chin, a Korean composer living in Berlin, particularly her piano etudes.

 

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