Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


The Quickening Art

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I tripped over a little video on YouTube called “Alive Inside” and it’s got me thinking about the way music is folded into the deepest parts of us.

In the early frames, an old man is slumped over in his wheel chair, listless and disengaged. He doesn’t respond to the caregiver, he doesn’t recognize his daughter. It’s a sorry scene—but this story is more about reconnecting with life than witnessing its dissolution. Once Henry has been hooked up with the music of his youth, he becomes alert and joyous. He makes eye contact and speaks with animation. He even sings a bit.

He’s still old and infirm, and his claim on facts is still a bit suspect, but he’s gloriously alive.

Part of what music offers Henry is physical. With his headphones on, his grasps his hands in front of him (is he holding an invisible dance partner?) and he sways and hums. It’s like the music is literally buoying him up.

That’s been my experience too. Music organizes my sense of time, gives a literal shape to the seconds. That external shape grounds me when I am anxious, energizes me when I am worn out, relaxes me when I am intense. Music connects the rhythms of my body with a more communal pulse, gives me the impression of being part of a larger dynamic entity.

It makes me feel good.

The other piece that’s clearly part of Henry’s story is music’s powerful coding of memory. With a soundtrack to prompt him, he is eagerly remembering the dances of his youth. “Cab Calloway was my number one guy,” he says, then delivers some pretty impressive scatting. It’s as if the music calls up an intensity that’s been dormant in him. “I’m crazy about music!” he says. “Music gives me the feeling of love, of romance. I feel the band of love, of dreams…”

Music inspires him, but music also returns him to himself.

Oliver Sacks, the brilliant neurologist and author who is one of the video’s commentators, observes the power of music “to animate, organize, and bring a sense of identity back to people who are ‘out of it’ otherwise. Music will bring them back into it—into their personhood, their own memories, their autobiographies.”

Sacks is one of the great authorities on the wonder of musical influence on brains. In the early 70s, he wrote Awakenings, a chronicle of patients with severe Parkinson’s who went from being catatonic to being fully functional when music was added to their environment. A more recent book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, is equally full of heart—and surprises.

Observing Henry, Sacks quotes the philosopher Emmanuel Kant, who called music “the quickening art.” I say, here’s to life!

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