[Dixielandjazz] Music Soothes the Savage Breast and Animates The Hemispheres

Steve Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Tue Nov 20 07:23:57 PST 2007

Off topic perhaps, but is this why we all hear music differently and can
seldom agree on definitions of things like "Jazz", or "OKOM"?

Steve Barbone

NY Times Book Review By MICHIKO KAKUTANI - November 20, 2007
MUSICOPHILIA  - Tales of Music and the Brain
By Oliver Sacks -3 81 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.

In his latest book, ³Musicophilia,² Dr. Sacks focuses on people afflicted
with strange musical disorders or powers ‹ ³musical misalignments² that
affect their professional and daily lives. A composer of atonal music starts
having musical hallucinations that are ³tonal² and ³corny²: irritating
Christmas songs and lullabies that play endlessly in his head. A musical
savant with a ³phonographic² memory learns the melodies to hundreds of
operas, as well as what every instrument plays and what every voice sings. A
composer with synesthesia sees specific colors when he hears music in
different musical keys: G minor, for instance, is not just ³yellow² but
³ocher²; D minor is ³like flint, graphite²; and F minor is ³earthy, ashy.² A
virtuosic pianist who for many years bizarrely lost the use of his right
hand, finds at the age of 36 that the fourth and fifth fingers of his right
hand have started to curl uncontrollably under his palm when he plays.

Dr. Sacks writes not just as a doctor and a scientist but also as a humanist
with a philosophical and literary bent, and he¹s able in these pages to
convey both the fathomless mysteries of the human brain and the equally
profound mysteries of music: an art that is ³completely abstract and
profoundly emotional,² devoid of the power to ³represent anything particular
or external,² but endowed with the capacity to express powerful, inchoate
moods and feelings.

He muses upon the unequal distribution of musical gifts among the human
population: Che Guevara, he tells us, was ³rhythm deaf,² capable of dancing
a mambo while an orchestra was playing a tango, whereas Freud and Nabokov
seemed incapable of receiving any pleasure from music at all. He writes
about the ³narrative or mnemonic power of music,² its ability to help a
person follow intricate sequences or retain great volumes of information ‹ a
power that explains why music can help someone with autism perform
procedures he or she might otherwise be incapable of.

And he writes about the power of rhythm to help coordinate and energize
basic locomotive movement, a power that explains why music can help push
athletes to new levels and why the right sort of music (generally, legato
with a well-defined rhythm) can help liberate some parkinsonian patients
from ³their frozenness.²

Indeed, this volume makes a powerful case for the benefits of music therapy.
In Dr. Sacks¹ view, music can aid aphasics and patients with parkinsonism,
and it can help orient and anchor patients with advanced dementia because
³musical perception, musical sensibility, musical emotion and musical memory
can survive long after other forms of memory have disappeared.²

Music, he says, can act as a ³Proustian mnemonic, eliciting emotions and
associations that had been long forgotten, giving the patient access once
again to mood and memories, thoughts and worlds that had seemingly been
completely lost.²

As he¹s done in his earlier books, Dr. Sacks underscores the resilience of
the human mind, the capacity of some people to find art in affliction, and
to adapt to loss and deprivation. Among the people who appear in this book
are children with Williams syndrome, who have low I.Q.¹s and extraordinary
musical and narrative gifts (one young woman learns to sing operatic arias
in more than 30 languages), and elderly dementia patients who develop
unexpected musical talents.

Dr. Sacks notes that there are stories in medical literature about people
who develop artistic gifts after left-hemisphere strokes, and he suggests
that ³there may be a variety of inhibitions ‹ psychological, neurological
and social ‹ which may, for one reason or another, relax in one¹s later
years and allow a creativity as surprising to oneself as to others.²

The composer Tobias Picker, who has Tourette¹s, tells Dr. Sacks that the
syndrome has shaped his imagination: ³I live my life controlled by
Tourette¹s but use music to control it. I have harnessed its energy ‹ I play
with it, manipulate it, trick it, mimic it, taunt it, explore it, exploit
it, in every possible way.²

Dr. Sacks notes that while the composer¹s newest piano concerto ³is full of
turbulent, agitated whirls and twirls² in sections, Mr. Picker is able to
write in every mode ‹ ³the dreamy and tranquil no less than the violent and
stormy² ‹ and can move ³from one mood to another with consummate ease.²

Although this book could have benefited from some heavy-duty editing that
would have removed repetitions and occasional patches of technical jargon,
these lapses are easily overlooked by the reader, so powerful and
compassionate are Dr. Sacks¹ accounts of his patients¹ dilemmas. He has
written a book that not only contributes to our understanding of the elusive
magic of music but also illuminates the strange workings, and misfirings, of
the human mind.

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