Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘music’

31 AUGUST, 2015

The Silent Music of the Mind: Remembering Oliver Sacks

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“I had no room now for this fear, or for any other fear, because I was filled to the brim with music.”

I was a relative latecomer to the work of Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015), that great enchanter of storytelling who spent his life bridging science and the human spirit — partly because I was not yet born when he first bewitched the reading public with his writing, and partly because those early books never made it past the Iron Curtain and into the Bulgaria of my childhood. It was only in my twenties, having made my way to America, that I fell in love with Dr. Sacks’s writing and the mind from which it sprang — a mind absolutely magnificent, buoyed by a full heart and a radiant spirit.

His intellectual elegance bowled me over, and I felt a strange kinship with many of his peculiarities, from the youthful affair with iron — although the 300-pound squats of my bodybuilding days paled before his 600 pounds, which set a state record and earned him the moniker Dr. Squat — to our shared love of Beethoven and Mendelssohn.

Indeed, it was his uncommon insight into the role of music in the human experience that first drew me to Dr. Sacks’s writing. I landed into Musicophilia and soon devoured his older writings. Both his science and his life were undergirded by a profound reverence for music — music seemed to be this intellectual giant’s greatest form of spirituality. He knew that the life of the mind and the life of the body were one, and understood that music married the two — an understanding he carried in his synapses and his sinews.

Nowhere did this embodied awareness, nor his luminous soul, come more vibrantly alive than in the remarkable story of how he once saved his own life by song and literature while running from a raging bull in a Norwegian fjord, told in his 1974 memoir A Leg to Stand On (public library) — the story by which I shall always remember him.

To commemorate this irreplaceable man, I asked artist Debbie Millman to create a piece of art illustrating the passage that captures not only the heart of that heartening story, but the spirit in which Dr. Sacks inhabited and exited our world.

The artwork is available as a print and I am donating all proceeds to the Oliver Sacks Foundation.

As the broken instrument of his body is buried motionless and mute into the earth, may the symphony of his spirit live on in his writing with the same eternally resounding vigor as what Dr. Sacks called “one of the world’s great musical treasures” in his final communication with the world:

What a privilege for this world to have been graced with this extraordinary human animal and his fully embodied mind. The only thing left to say is what Dr. Sacks himself wrote to his beloved aunt Lennie, who shaped his life, as she lay dying: “Thank you, once again, and for the last time, for living — for being you.”

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05 AUGUST, 2015

Neil Armstrong’s Heartbeat and the Sound of Venus in a Beautiful Cover of Lennon’s “Oh My Love”

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A cosmic serenade to the human heart’s capacity for uncontainable emotion.

Music, Carl Sagan asserted as he sent the Golden Record into space, is “a creditable attempt to convey human emotions” — a sentiment at the heart of an uncommonly enchanting project by Berlin-based artist and space-lover Louise Gold. In the orchestration for her beautiful cover of John Lennon’s “Oh My Love,” she used a NASA recording of Neil Armstrong’s heartbeat during his trailblazing moon walk and the sound of Venus’s orbit, as captured by the Voyager spacecraft. Gold originally intended to transform the archival audio into a purely instrumental track — something that would capture what Armstrong must have felt upon stepping onto this unvisited world, a kind of serene elation she imagined to be “a bit like being in love with someone and finding out that this person loves you back.” But as she was working on the track, the universe winked — “Oh My Love” came on the radio. Although she had heard the song many times before, in that instant of creative receptivity, it came alive in a new way — as Lennon sang “everything is clear in my heart,” Gold instantly recognized the very feeling she was hoping to channel through Armstrong’s heartbeat.

There is something astoundingly poetic in the result, far beyond the sheer mesmerism of the music: Armstrong’s famous 1969 lunar proclamation — “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — bears the inexorable gendered language of an era that folded women into the universal “he,” and yet here is a woman reimagining the Lennon classic, reaching across time and space, by way of Venus, to add her voice to humanity’s musical legacy that the Voyager carried into the cosmos.

Complement with a breathtaking chamber orchestra arrangement for the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf, then revisit the story of Carl Sagan and the Golden Record.

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04 AUGUST, 2015

Blair Sets Emily Dickinson’s “Farewell” to Song Shortly Before His Death

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“And kiss the hills for me, just once…”

Perhaps because poetry, in the shimmering words of Elizabeth Alexander, “is the human voice,” something magical happens when musicians set beloved poems to song — from Natalie Merchant’s adaptations of Victorian nursery rhymes to Tin Hat’s songs based on e.e. cummings to The Wraiths’ musical celebration of William Blake.

One of the most unusual and wonderful such reimaginings comes from the late and great poet, musician, and activist David Blair, better known as Blair and aptly anointed by GLAAD as “a gay black Renaissance man.” Blair set Emily Dickinson’s poem “Farewell,” found in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (public library), to song — acapella, no less — live at the Detroit Institute of Arts, filmed by Erik Proulx. Blair’s sudden death of heat stroke shortly after this performance, at the age of only forty-three, lends the poem a new solemn poignancy.

FAREWELL

Tie the strings to my life, my Lord,
Then I am ready to go!
Just a look at the horses—
Rapid! That will do!

Put me in on the firmest side,
So I shall never fall;
For we must ride to the Judgment,
And it’s partly down hill.

But never I mind the bridges,
And never I mind the sea;
Held fast in everlasting race
By my own choice and thee.

Good-by to the life I used to live,
And the world I used to know;
And kiss the hills for me, just once;
Now I am ready to go!

Complement with a very different musical adaptation of Dickinson by Israeli singer-songwriter Efrat Ben Zur and these lovely illustrations of the celebrated poet’s work.

Thanks, Jonathan

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30 JULY, 2015

Neil Gaiman’s Philosophical Dream, in a Whimsical Animation Narrated by Amanda Palmer

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A weird and wonderful journey into the woodland of the subconscious.

“A dream can be so strange that it seems that another subject has come to dream with us,” philosopher Gaston Bachelard observed in his reflection on dreams and reverie. And yet our dream-selves and our waking selves are somehow the same person, linked by an even more mysterious continuity of consciousness than that between our childhood selves and our present selves. As scientists continue to probe the enigma of why we dream, we continue dreaming and interpreting our dreams, hoping to find in them answers to our greatest existential perplexities.

Beloved writer Neil Gaiman may be a sage of storytelling in his wakeful life and one of the most interesting people alive, but he is also a masterful weaver of whimsical, intensely interesting stories while asleep. Over the years, his wife — musician, patronage crusader, and friend-of-Brain-Pickings Amanda Palmer — has been his dutiful dreamkeeper. She regularly amuses herself by engaging half-asleep Neil in semi-sensical conversation, plunging into this unguarded rabbit hole into the surreal wonderland of his mind and writing down the best such conversations in a notepad.

One day, when she didn’t have paper on hand, Amanda slipped into the bathroom and quietly recounted a particularly fantastic dream of Neil’s in a voice memo. A year later, she discovered the recording on her phone. Newly enchanted by its whimsy, she decided to bring it to life in a short film, enlisting the help of her Patreon supporters, of whom I am proudly one. (All of Amanda’s work is freely offered and, like Brain Pickings, relies on audience support.)

She composed an original score and teamed up with animator Avi Ofer to create something utterly magical — something weird and whimsical and strangely philosophical, partway between that curious vintage children’s book about dreaming, illustrated by Freud’s eccentric cross-dressing niece, and Mark Strand’s beautiful poem “Dreams.” Please enjoy:

Complement with the science of dreams and why we have nightmares and the story of how Dostoyevsky discovered the meaning of life in a dream, then revisit Ofer’s wonderful animations of the fluid dynamics of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and Jane Goodall’s remarkable life-story.

Join me in supporting Amanda on Patreon, where she has written about how this piece of magic came to be.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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