Monday, November 19, 2007

Slaves to the Rhythm: Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia

Though I’ve spent my life largely involved with other forms, I’ve always subscribed to the Romantic notion that all art should aspire to the conditions of music. Music seems to possess a unique power, penetrating our interior world of dreams, memories and desires with inexplicable immediacy, yet simultaneously able to provoke flights of solidarity between individuals who might otherwise never feel united. If I have a single overriding bias when assessing the books or films I write about, it’s most certainly my attraction to anything that has some shape, rhythm or tone that works like music. 

Much as I love music however, I find myself becoming increasingly curmudgeonly in my attitude toward our easy access to and/or abundance of music in every aspect of daily public life. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera has a character lament one’s inability to sit down for a meal in a restaurant without being bombarded with music. Luis Buñuel, in his contemporaneous memoir My Last Sigh, lamented how difficult it was for him to find a bar where music was not always being played. He liked to devise his films in bars, and found that incessant background music interfered with his ability to daydream freely. 20 years and several leaps in technology later and the protests made in these books now seems quaint: the thoughtless battery of music has virtually conquered modern life. Like anything of beauty, when the presence of music becomes total it becomes taken for granted: it plays and plays, but no one hears it.

I’m getting too gloomy. The point of this column is in fact to call attention to a new book that I think functions as a welcome antidote to this musical malaise, one that celebrates the enduring bond between our species and the infinite varieties of music that haunt us. Oliver Sacks is among the world’s most successful popular science writers for a good reason. He conveys the study of neurological science through narratives that seize upon struggles with the business of living that anyone can relate to. In a voice that’s always as compassionate as it is curious, he reveals our vulnerability to the dictates of biochemistry, yet as he does so, the science to which he surrenders so much enthusiasm suddenly begins to expand life’s possibilities rather than shrink them.

Musicophilia (Knopf, $34.95) is Sacks’ latest, and in some ways –though I’m not even sure if Sacks himself is aware of it– it feels like a summation of his previous books. It frequently draws upon case studies from those books to help flesh out his concentrated exploration of our strange contract with music, a force that alone seems to break though countless barriers raised by defects of our brains. Sacks explains how the brains of talented musicians are physically distinctive from those of non-musicians, yet he spends more time marveling at the musical abilities of people whose brains might seem to promise no special talents whatsoever.

Sacks tells of 42-year-old man with no previous special interest in music who after being struck by lightning became obsessed to the point of throwing everything away for a career as a concert pianist. He tells of a man fully gripped by Alzheimer’s who remembers the baritone part of every song he ever sang in his 40 years with an a cappella group. He tells of a man with the worst case of amnesia on record, a man who doesn’t recognize the wife who’s cared for him daily since his debilitating brain infection 20 years ago, yet who can sit down at a piano and play a Bach Prelude with grace. He may not remember who Bach is, but once the notation is placed before him, he “remembers” how to play and for that time and only that time does he truly have a present.

But Sacks also relays fascinating anecdotes about those for whom music has been a sort of curse: victims of musical hallucinations, overwhelming musical sensitivity, or, perhaps most disturbing of all, a complete lack of affect toward music. (He counts William and Henry James, Vladimir Nabokov, and Freud among those famed artists and intellectuals seemingly uninterested or even hostile toward music.) As already evidenced in Awakenings, Sacks’ famous book on his experiences with encephalitis sufferers, music has often been a tremendous therapeutic tool for treating numerous severe neurological disorders, yet it can also be the bane of some, such as the 19th century music critic Nikonov, who eventually became so painfully afflicted by musical antipathy that any music, however soft, would send him into convulsions. (Nikonov authored a pamphlet entitled Fear of Music, a title eventually appropriated by Talking Heads for one of their very best records.)

Sacks strings together his tales and observations by theme, leading to no sweeping thesis aside from the sum of his book’s parts, which seem to me to work just fine, since it’s the very mystery of music that makes these readings so compelling. The final scene described in Musicophilia features several individuals, each of them confined largely to the island constructed from their own severe dementia, suddenly brought together by music which they had no idea was coming, nor will they recall after it disappears. And it’s such moments that remind us eloquently of music’s special ephemeral quality, one so seductive and so heartbreaking.

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