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Listen

So I’m listening to music now.  That is, not this very moment now, but now generally, day to day now.  Now as in impulsive now, I’m in the mood for Thelonious Monk now, Nirvana now.

I mention this because the ability to attentively listen to music was one of the casualties of my bout of encephalitis 23 years ago.  Information processing in general became difficult.  Since then, if my cognitive load becomes too large, I suffer a general cognitive collapse for a while.  For most of this time, listening to music was one of the fastest routes to this.

The virtues of music therapy for brain injured people is well documented.  But it’s not for everyone.  Not even for one of the pivotal figures of psychotherapy.

No one really knows what was behind Sigmund Freud’s intolerance of music, but the accounts of his reactions to hearing music remind me of my own reactions.  A speculative article by Nathan Roth, Sigmund Freud’s Dislike of Music makes the case that rather than mere dislike, or evidence of his own neurosis, it was a form of “musigenic epilepsy”.

While I don’t have epilepsy, the symptomatic similarities are notable.   If we think of epilepsy as, at least partially, a problem with information processing, then perhaps a parallel makes some sense.

For me, music, as information, was particularly difficult.  I pretty much lost my ability to play my guitar as well.   My last post talks about how I was able to regain that.  And, later in life, Freud too was able to not only tolerate, but enjoy certain pieces of music.  To show off his new found ability, Freud dragged Arnold Schoenberg to a performance of Don Giovanni.  The serialist had never heard it in person.  A hysterical evening I’m sure.

Anyway, over the years I had attempted the slow, desensitizing, “rewiring” approach to listening to music.  That approach had been useful in regaining not only guitar playing, but a host of other skills and abilities as well.  Up to a point of course.  There would always be a wall, plateau, ceiling past which continued advances were both minimal and fleeting.  With music listening though, this limit remained frustratingly close to nothing.

Rarely in my various efforts of auto-rehab has there been a breakthrough event that moved me decisively forward and remained durable.  Slow and steady kept me moving even if it only once in a while enabled me to win the race.

Listening to music, it seems, was different.

I had been playing guitar again for about a year when I decided to see if taking lessons would work.  Not only was I playing stuff from pre-encephalitis days, but I was slowly working to develop my playing.

A couple of likely candidates for teacher emerged.  One was an acquaintance from my college days who majored in guitar.  But we just couldn’t seem to set up a time.

Another Eric, is a virtuoso of both the guitar and the theremin.  A friend of friends,  Karen made the initial contact.  She gave him some context for my situation and after some back and forth, we set up a time.

Eric’s house is in the First Ward section of Binghamton.  The local eddy of the early 20th century wave of eastern European  immigrants settled there.  Jobs in the local manufacturing powerhouses of shoes, cigars and cameras were plentiful.  His house is high up in the Prospect Mountain neighborhood, just below the massive interstate project that is carving large chunks out of the mountain (or what passes for one around here).

At 10:00am we were pushing my “the earlier the better” window for doing anything ambitious.  Of course being a musician, anything in the morning was something of an accommodation on Eric’s part. He answered the door in his robe and slippers.

A compact man of our vintage, Eric suggested Karen hang out in the living room. Then he and I went up the steep stairs to a small room filled with electronics and guitars.  Two folding chairs fit snugly.

He said he would rely on me to tell him if the lesson was getting to be too much. Otherwise he would just do what he would normally do.  He tested my knowledge of the guitar, its parts, the strings and basic chords.  Other than revealing a few bad habits I had in fingering, this went quickly.

So he gave me sheet music with guitar chord charts and we went through Hey Jude and A Horse with No Name.  Pretty uneventful.  So I suggested I play some of what I play which was along the lines of the boogie blues piece in Electric Atomic Geography.

We quickly found a groove together.  My synapses were firing like a string of fireworks.  As close to the edge as I was, I didn’t fall off the cliff.  Eric then gave me a basic jazz progression, and we jammed on that for a while.  While I couldn’t match his speed or sophistication, I could see from his reactions I was doing OK.  More than that, the joyfulness of his playing was infectious.

By the time we stopped I was pretty much cooked.  I don’t really remember any of the end of lesson chit-chat, or even how I got down the stairs and into the car.

But one thing I knew was that something had changed.  It just took a while to figure out what.

I decided to give focused listening another try.   Our pre-injury stereo had been in the basement for 20+ years and we weren’t sure it was still in working order.  Starting out smaller seemed smarter.

Karen had a BOSE CD player and it was ready at hand.  Unfortunately, the bass heavy sound profile made listening torture, but in a different way than the musical torture I was used to.  It was specific to the sound  rather than the music itself.

Routing a CD player through the TV produced pretty terrible sound,  but I could listen to it without that deep distress I had come to expect from music.  After a few weeks of this, I developed enough confidence to buy a compact stereo.  Picking one whose reviews disparaged its poor bass response resulted in a stereo with impressive accuracy.

We had plenty of CDs from pre-injury days and those Karen bought before she switched to iTunes.  Her iTunes library had some great stuff in it.  Unfortunately, after playing a variety of tracks, I found they all had the bass forward profile the BOSE player had.

Gentle readers, what the fuck?  This can’t be a coincidence.  It must be a reflection of popular tastes.  Do you really think music sounds good/right/like music at all with the bass booming away, with mushy mid ranges, sounding like some loud sentimental drunk?  I emerge from a Rip Van Winkle musical nap only to find that all the incredible advances in technology enabled a general degeneration in the prevailing sound of music?

So CD’s it is. (What about vinyl you ask?  Well, it turns out that 20 years in a damp basement is not good for stereo equipment, so new stuff will be needed to unlock our record collection.  That is to say, it will have to wait a bit.)

Meanwhile, I’ve been listening to the CD’s we already have, plus a few presents.  But I’m pretty curious about the last 20 years in music, especially jazz.  Somewhere around the mid 80’s, rock and pop seemed to lose steam for me.  But where to start?

Downbeat and various jazz sites seemed a logical place to start, but I frequently got overwhelmed by the amount of information.  Not to mention the sense of dislocation in discovering that all the young(ish) upcoming jazz stars of 20 some years ago were no longer young! but were grizzled old veterans, legends or dead.

As it happens, a few years ago, I reconnected with our friend Stuart from the old days.  He  shared our passion for jazz and we spent a lot of time in his apartment listening to his, even then, impressive LP collection.  (Odd side note: for a few months I went to therapy.  The shrink’s office was Stuart’s old, now converted, apartment.  As I squeezed out words to bare my soul I couldn’t help but remember sitting in the same space 40 years ago.  Then, Stuart, Karen and I enjoyed each other’s company, listening to Miles, Monk and Coltrane with forays into Mingus, Sun Ra and the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, while eating meat sauce over cornbread.)

Stuart, it turns out has had a kind of decentralized life.  He has worked on a variety of music projects, wrote by his estimation 3,000 reviews for magazines, and ended up the archivist for Fantasy Records.  There he produced several boxed sets of jazz luminaries and even got a Grammy nomination.  The residue of all this includes his collection of something like 18,000 CD’s (many coming to him as copies to review).

This produces perhaps, a Borges-ian musical Library of Babel, a collection so vast that it defies any attempt to listen to it.  It’s a situation so counter to my erstwhile difficulties that it comes close to duplicating them.  Stuart’s latest strategy was to develop a listening spreadsheet of musical categories specifying for each day of the week, for each month, a category of music.

Stuart continues to review music at his blog, Mr. Stu’s Record Room.  This, it turns out, is just what I’m looking for.  His writing is clear and concise. His turns of phrase takes me back to his Oak Street apartment where jazz and conversation were continuous.

I’ve discovered lots of interesting stuff through his blog.  I’ve already purchased a few CD’s on his recommendation, with more to come.  Even more importantly, reading his reviews has helped me redevelop the vocabulary, concepts and emotional framework for experiencing music again.

Before the breakthrough, the cognitive overload and breakdown from music frequently happened immediately.  Occasionally though, I was able to keep my footing for a few moments if I listened to the music hyper-analytically.  This acted as both buffer and barrier.  It would keep cognitive collapse at bay for a little while allowing a simulacrum of music.  It was like listening to some one else’s account of the music rather than the music itself.  Lost in the translation was the immediate and immersive experience that characterizes both strong emotion and vivid music.  Finding how to process the emotional part of music is pivotal to my return to it.

Returning to Freud, he wrote in The Moses of Michelangelo:

…with music, I am almost incapable of obtaining any pleasure.  Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me.

Freud’s understanding of his difficulty with music as “rebellion” seems foreign to me.  He undertook his analysis of Moses to overcome the ambiguities of his reactions to it.  He believed only an interpretation of a piece of art so thorough that all ambiguities were overcome, that the artist’s intention would be exposed, would allow for a sufficient understanding of it.  For Freud, that understanding was the experience.

I though longed for the musical experience that, in the end, used words only to point the way.  Certainly this pointing of the way enriches our experience of music, but of course,”The map is not the territory“.  Freud rebelled against music because he believed it, much more than the visual arts, resists the substitution of the symbol, the higher level of abstraction, for the thing.  The speculations of the Roth article make me wonder what differences there would have been to Freud’s theories if he had understood his reaction to music as a neurological condition.

All of this occurred over the past year and a half.  For about a year of that, the cognitive load of listening to music made making music difficult.  In the past few months this has eased and I have returned to playing my guitar.

While I’m not quite at the point of  taking another lesson, I have been thinking about it.  For now, my gratitude to Eric translates to concern for him.  He suffered a stroke about six months ago.  Occasional updates from people who know him indicate he continues to recover. He does play music but, as with brain injuries in general, fatigue is a significant issue.  He recently resumed giving lessons.

My one lesson with him began a profound process for me.  I will never forget his kindness. I hope I am able to repay that in some way.

In the meantime, I can hear music as music.  It’s not just broken time.  Now, again, it’s time, intention and emotion joined together like moonlight and darkness.


Guest Author
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AG lives in Vestal, NY and writes about cyborgs, disability and Buddhism.

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12 thoughts on “Listen

  1. I’d describe your journey as fascinating, only it seems a bit bloodless and detached. What a loss this must have been!

    Also, I wish to express my gratitude for pointing me to Mr. Stu’s Record Room. I anticipate much enjoyment in consequence.

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    • Nothing wrong with fascination. Before all this I found the subject fascinating myself, was a fan of Oliver Sacks, had written a poem about Phineas Gage. Although it generally sucks when one’s fascination comes back as irony.

      Yeah Stuey knows his stuff, glad your enjoying his blog.

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  2. Freud’s remarks don’t ring true to me. Little children love music. They swing and sway from the earliest ages. The adult Freud’s comments are an intellectualization of his repression of the real reason for his discomfort with music.

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  3. Retraining yourself to come back after you’ve lost something is something I can’t even consider doing.

    Jeez, just going on a diet is difficult enough.

    Thank you for sharing this harrowing story with us and good luck and keep it up!

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    • Thanks for your good thoughts.

      All I’ve been doing is working on trying to make my life better. It’s all anyone can do.

      Unrelated health issues caused me to put on some extra lbs a few years ago. Haven’t figured out how to loose it no matter what I do. These things aren’t fungible.

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  4. I was so excited to see you’d written for us again, but I think I’d forgotten just how much I like what you write.

    This may be my favorite post of everything I have ever read on this site (that was not written by my husband, but I know I have a lot of bias toward his works).

    It is, most certainly, in the top 20, of probably thousands.

    Thank you for writing this and letting us post it.

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  5. Hiya, I am really glad I’ve found this info. Today bloggers publish only about gossip and net stuff and this is really annoying. A good blog with exciting content, that’s what I need. Thanks for making this site, and I will be visiting again. Do you do newsletters? I Cant find it.

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    • Yugal, your comment looks suspiciously like spam so I’ve removed the link to your website and edited your name a bit. If I’m mistaken, please know that you are welcome here,though we don’t use our name fields to advertise! (If I’m not, shoo.)

      We don’t have a newsletter.

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