I lost count of the times that I have entered a room to find my wife Rena weeping amidst objects or photographs from her past. I watch how she gently and lovingly holds the objects that had once been touched by a cherished family member or gazes longingly at the visages of her children peering out at her from fading color photographs. These artifacts create tremendous resonance in her body and serve as a stimulus to vast landscapes of emotion and memory within her.
Rena’s relationship to her beloved objects is not only poignant but also instructive to me. Contemporary artists are encouraged and persuaded to try to create their own singular, distinctive signature, to be unique, to be novel. And artists are often judged by their capacity to do so. The problem is that none of these objectives feel satisfying or worth my time and effort. What matters more to me is that the work stimulates and has substantial resonance.
The word resonance comes from Latin and means to “re-sound” or to “sound together.” In general the word is understood as a quality that makes something personally meaningful or important. In music, resonance is a sound or vibration produced in one object that is caused by the sound or vibration produced in another. Most musical instruments cause resonance, a quality of sound that stays loud, clear and deep for a long time. It seems somehow significant that in music the decrease of resonance is called dullness.
Resonance is also a common thread that runs through most branches of physics and denotes a vibrating system or external force that drives another one to oscillate at greater amplitude. Without resonance we would not have radio or television, music or playground swings. In some cases resonance is easy to perceive. We can observe the movement that causes an object to sway back and forth or up or down as in the motion of a swing on a playground or the vibration in a guitar string. This motion, in physics, is called oscillation. The oscillation of electrons on a molecular level is far less easy to observe and cannot be perceived without measuring instruments.
In any field, resonance implies evoking a response. Perhaps it is instructive to look at the theater and resonance from the context of physics. Is it possible to generate stage moments that are filled with infectious oscillations that can propel intensified parallel oscillations in an audience? As in physics can we examine the theater’s power to stimulate resonance from one entity into another? Can the actor, the words and the actions vibrate and compel a second entity, the receiver or the spectator, also into vibrational motion? The musical Hamilton has had an uncanny resonance that spread widely. Is it perhaps also true that, as in music, a production that does not achieve this oscillating resonance in the audience results in dullness?
In physics, oscillations can build up rapidly to very high levels and if some are not removed, objects begin to break, causing bridges to collapse and helicopters to burst into pieces. In the performing arts, we set up a vibration from the stage that carries into the body and imagination of the observer, the audience. We want to create stage moments that resonate in the audience. But we are also responsible for the quantities and qualities of these oscillations, of this resonance. Much like early Nazi rallies, Donald Trump’s rallies build up oscillations and resonances in the audience that release permission for violence and a celebration of intolerance. This is a frightening current development that we must attend to closely.
A rehearsal process entails building up resonance and meaning within a space and time set aside for that procedure. The process requires the consistent enrichment, compression and concentration of patterned ideographs, gestures, actions, sounds and words, impressed upon the space and time through the physical heat and energy of the creative team and the individual contributions of the team. The repetition of scenes from rehearsal to rehearsal stores up memories and thickens the air between actors and their environments. With success, the paths carved in space over time in rehearsal become increasingly meaningful and powerful for the audience.
British biochemist Rupert Sheldrake chose the words morphic resonance to suggest that memory is inherent in nature and that telepathy-type interconnections between organisms exist as well as collective memories within species. Sheldrake’s ideas have been often dismissed in the scientific community that accuses him of belonging to the field of parapsychology rather than science. While his theories are much disputed, they are also much discussed. According to Sheldrake, nature is alive and vast networks of interconnections between organisms reverberate and exchange information across space and time. He wrote, “Natural systems, such as termite colonies, or pigeons, or orchid plants, or insulin molecules, inherit a collective memory from all previous things of their kind no matter far away that they were and however long ago they existed.” He describes a Harvard experiment with rats that learned to escape from a water-maze and points out how subsequent generations learned the same path faster and faster. After the Harvard rats had learned to escape more than ten times quicker, the experiment was launched in Edinburgh, Scotland and in Melbourne, Australia and the rats tested there surprisingly started more or less where the Harvard rats left off. And so, the effect was not confined to direct descendants of the Harvard rats. According to Sheldrake, this ability of the Australian and Scottish rats shows morphic resonance rather than a transfer of information through genes.
In Sheldrake’s conception, nature is alive and morphic resonance is the “influence of previous structures of activity on subsequent similar structures of activity organized by morphic fields.” Morphic resonance enables memories to pass across both space and time from the past. Sheldrake also believed in the interconnection between humans and animals, especially dogs. Morphic resonance, according to Sheldrake, also accounts for phantom limbs, how dogs know when their owners are coming home, and how people know when someone is staring at them. “What this means,” wrote Sheldrake, “is that all self-organizing systems, such as molecules, crystals, cells, plants, animals and animal societies, have a collective memory on which each individual draws and to which it contributes. In its most general sense this hypothesis implies that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits.”
The Catholic Pope Francis recently visited Auschwitz-Birkenau and chose to make the outing in silence. “I would like to go to that place of horror without speeches, without crowds – only the few people necessary. Alone, enter, pray. And may the Lord give me the grace to cry.” In the case of a place of such suffering, is the resonance imagined or is it real? Do the walls of Auschwitz contain the memories of the 1.1 million people were slaughtered there more than three quarters of a century ago?