Friday, August 10, 2007

Music therapy

Oliver Sacks's forthcoming Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain is a magical and haunting book; reading it just now has unsettled and saddened me, its tales of loss are so frequently devastating.

It's not a collection of essays, exactly, more like musings and case notes. But who would you rather be reading than Oliver Sacks? In my case, the answer is certainly "nobody," there is something so compelling about his humanistic intelligence and empathy and the curiosity that drives him to uncover little-known neurological phenomena and lay them out for his readers. And all in such beautiful prose...

(Sacks himself, though his sense of wonder is never abated, shows himself at various points in the book mourning, depressed or otherwise grieving for various kinds of loss, including the losses experienced by his neurological patients. He tells the story, for instance, of a disturbing musical dream he experienced in 1974, during a period of severe insomnia and heavy use of chloral hydrate. The dream continues into the waking state, and nothing Sacks does can dispel the music he continues to hear, which has "something deeply disturbing and unpleasant" about it. Unable to stop the "hateful hallucinatory music," he phones a friend and tells him about this music, songs in German, a language Sacks doesn't know. The friend asks Sacks to hum the songs. "I did so," Sacks writes, "and there was a long pause." The friend asks, "Have you abandoned some of your young patients? Or destroyed some of your literary children?" "Both," Sacks answers. "Yesterday. I resigned from the children's unit at the hospital where I have been working, and I burned a book of essays I had just written . . . How did you guess?" "Your mind is playing Mahler's Kindertotenlieder," says the friend, "his songs of mourning for the death of children." The mood of the book as a whole is dark, to an extent unprecedented, I think, in Sacks's earlier writings. This story for instance is left to speak for itself, and the style at points comes across as quite stark and deliberately elliptical, but with the kind of leavings-out that we associate with the "late style" of certain composers or novelists. Interesting...)

But I will leave you with one of very many magical details observed by Sacks, one with no aura of sadness about it:
The Finnish entomologist Olavi Sotavalta, an expert on the sounds of insects in flight, was greatly assisted in his studies by having absolute pitch--for the sound pitch of an insect in flight is produced by the frequency of its wingbeats. Not content with musical notation, Sotavalta was able to estimate very exact frequencies by ear. The sound pitch made by the moth Plusia gamma approximates a low F-sharp, but Sotavalta could estimate it more precisely as having a frequency of 46 cycles per second. Such an ability, of course, requires not only a remarkable ear, but a knowledge of the scales and frequencies with which pitch can be correlated.
(Oh, and I am glad to see Sacks praising Michael Chorost's excellent Rebuilt--but there are hundreds of fascinating and moving things here, I can see I am going to be buying a lot of copies of this one as presents...)

(Thanks to G. for the book.)

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