Posts Tagged ‘Musicophilia’

Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia

February 16, 2008

Sacks got plenty of mixed reviews (and I linked to a couple of them in this blog too — here and here, for example). Thus, I approached the book with a bit of trepidation. However, I need not have worried. Sacks is yet to disappoint me.

Be it a couple of references to A R Luria and Hughlings Jackson, two of his favourite neurologists, or to literary figures such as Nabokov or Tolstoy, Sacks’ writing is always a pleasure to read — both for its lucidity and the ideas that they convey. Here is, for example, a quote from E M Forster, from his discussion on the therapeutic values of music, and how, to be catharatic, music must steal on one unawares:

“The Arts are not drugs,” E. M. Forster once wrote. “They are not guaranteed to act when taken. Something as mysterious and capricious as the creative impulse has to be released before they can act.”

It is lines like these which shine so much of light on the writers, their observations, and how they match with the clinical observations of himself and his colleagues that makes reading Sacks such a pleasurable literary experience.

One of the main themes that runs throughout the book is how

… singing (…) is a very basic existential communication

and, Sacks shows how, even when almost all the identity of self is wiped out in patients with Alzheimer or other such diseases or accidents which cause extensive damage to frontal lobes, music can still help give the patient access to his self.

The book is also full of interesting pieces of information, like this one about E O Wilson, for example:

Edward O. Wilson describes in his autobiography, Naturalist, how he lost an eye in childhood but nonetheless is able to judge distances and depths with great accuracy. When I met him I was struck by a curious nodding of the head, and took this to be a habit or a tic. But he said it was nothing of the sort–it was a strategy designed to give his remaining eye alternative perspectives (such as normally two eyes would receive), and this, he felt, combined with his memories of true stereopsis, could give him a sort of simulacrum of stereo vision. He said that he adopted these head movements after observing similar movements in animals (like birds and reptiles for instance) whose visual fields have very little overlap.

I have seen such very distinct head movement at least in crows (and, of course, my grandmother had the following mythological explanation for their behaviour: a demon of the crow form, called Kakasura, was rendered blind in one eye by Rama).

Sacks also tells the moving tales of some of the musicians, like Jacob and Fleisher, who, through their musical activities, attention and will, literally reshape their brains and overcome their debilitating diseases.

His section of musicians dystonia made me wonder if Chembai’s loss and regain of voice isn’t some type of dystonia (especially, considering his unbelievable and out-of-this-world excercising of throat muscles, such as the alapanas he used to make with his mouth closed):

In 1952, Chembai was singing in a concert at the temple town of Suchindram. In the middle of the concert, his voice chords snapped and he could not sing thereafter. The concert ended in confusion. Here is an account (in his own words) of how his faith in God had brought back his voice:

On January 7, 1952, I was giving a concert at holy Suchindram. An hour had elapsed and I was at the peak of my performance. All of a sudden, my vocal cords got stuck up, as it were, and my voiced totally failed me. The concert broke up in confusion. Many rushed up to the dais to render help. Doctors tried their best with pills and potions but to no avail.

I went through life without any hope and no ray of hope seemed to come anywhere. In this state of desperation, in 1954, on the great Ekadasi Day in Guruvayoor, I stood before the Lord and wrung out my heart to Him. I could not give vocal utterance to my anguish. Memories of the glorious days when I had sung His praises surged forward.

O Lord, I cried out, will Thou not let me sing Thy praises? Will Thou let my heart break, for without this outward expression of my heart’s agony, I can hardly live? Had Not Thou in the past not given the gift of speech to the great Muka Kavi? Had he not sung Thy praises in enchanting Sanskrit verses known so well as the Muka Panchasati Stotras?

In my agony and mute supplication to the Lord, I had not noticed a Namboothiri standing at a distance of some fifty feet from me. He divined my trouble and came to me. He had evidently heard my inarticulate prayer. He promised to rid me of my trouble, Guruvayoorappan willing.

The Lord had sent his minister to help me and I regained my voice. In keeping with my promise I have since then been singing the praises of Bhagavan. Every year, I have the ‘Udayastamana’ puja performed at the temple fo Guruvayoor and the sum of Rs. 5,000 need for it comes from the concerts that Guruvayoorappan himself arranged.

The only jarring note I found in Sacks’ book is his reference to the Indian music as Hindu music (I am happy he didn’t spell Hindu as Hindoo as some of the 19th century European scholars used to do). The reference is all the more surprising in a friend of V S Ramachandran.

Having said that, this is a  book certainly worth your time if you are interested in music, and is a nice complementary read for Levitin’s This is your brain on music; have fun!

Yet another review of Musicophilia

January 25, 2008

Jessica Phillips-Silver reviews Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia for Science (and has quite a few nice things to say about the book):

Musicophilia is not only another example of best-selling author Oliver Sacks’s repertoire of fascinating neurological anecdotes and skillful storytelling but also a poignant collection of evidence that music has a powerful influence on the human brain.

Last time, when I borrowed the book from the library, I could not finish reading it. I have brought the book home again today, and, probably this time, I will finish it (and write a note here about it).

Price we pay for our powers of ratiocination

November 7, 2007

Sacks also describes a rare congenital disorder called Williams syndrome, in which people never develop mentally beyond the abilities of a toddler, but have an extraordinary musical facility, playing back any piece on first hearing. Though he never exactly spells it out, the melancholy supposition arises that a repression of musical potential is the price we pay for our powers of ratiocination. Some might think the price is too high.

From this review by Steven Poole at the Guardian of Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia (Thanks to Jayan at Brain Drain for the email alert).

How Sacks found empathy

November 1, 2007

Jonah Lehrer, in this piece in Seed, talks to Oliver Sacks, and tells about the not-so-well-known aspects of Sacks’ life, which made him the empathetic writer and neurologist that he is. Of course, it also tells how Sacks came to write Musicophilia and what it means to him, personally:

Musicophilia is not just a collection of neurological case studies. There is an unexpected thread running through the book. That thread is Sacks’s life. Even as he explores the neurology of music, Sacks returns, again and again, to stories from his own past, almost as if he’s rediscovering them. There are the famous patients from Awakenings, who were unfrozen by the sound of music. There are the musical hallucinations of his mother, who, at the age of 70, was temporarily seized by patriotic songs from her childhood. And there’s the tale of Sacks’s own musical healing so that at times it feels like a memoir told through the prism of music. In Musicophilia, Sacks is both a sensitive observer and a subject. As usual, his own story is inseparable from the stories of his patients.

“I had no intention of writing a book devoted to music,” Sacks says. “I’m not a musician or an expert on music…but this book found me. I began to revisit all of these older stories and present them in an explicitly musical light. That’s the way writing is sometimes. One doesn’t know what story one is telling until the story is told.”

Take a look!

Another critique of Sacks’ Musicophilia

October 30, 2007

Gerard McBurney in the NewStatesman (via A&L Daily) (The first few paragraphs of the online version seems to be a bit mangled):

… did prompt me to wonder why I find Sacks’s stories, however curious, disturbingly unsatisfactory. Perhaps it is that reading such loosely linked sequences of peculiar tales feels like going to a peep show or wandering in a zoo, an effect compounded by Sacks’s sweetly confidential prose style. It is hard to see what he wants us to take away from the whole rather than the parts. No doubt this is precisely why so many people find his books mesmerising.

A bigger problem is what he says about music. There are muddled references to particular pieces and technical matters, and an amateurish account of how Tchaikovsky composed as opposed to how Beethoven did, which do not inspire confidence. An intriguing mention of Ravel’s disastrous mental decline at the end of his life is undermined by a dinner party-like attempt to connect this to the repetitiveness of the composer’s Bolero that ignores both what the piece is and what the composer most interestingly said about it.

… Sacks, […] makes reference to many kinds of music and rejoices in the high culture of his own musical upbringing. And yet there is little here to suggest recognition of different levels of complexity and different kinds of meaning. Music seems to have been reduced to a single flat plane of significance.

On the whole, however, the review is a bit positive about Sacks’ book; in any case, I have my copy from the library, and will start reading it soon; then, I will be able to make up my mind about the book by myself.

A critique of Sacks’ Musicophilia

October 11, 2007

A piece by Kevin Burger in Salon asks if Sacks has struck the wrong note:

Unfortunately, Wearing’s story is the only great song on “Musicophilia,” which exposes the sentimentality and cursory science that unforgiving critics have always seen in Sacks’ writing.

Some biologists have never been comfortable with that soft core in Sacks’ articles. Sacks, they say, is the Ripley of neurology. Believe it or not, a man with visual agnosia mistook his wife for a hat! Believe it or not, a man with musical synesthesia sees blue whenever he hears music in D major! In a similarly sarcastic vein, Tom Shakespeare, a British disability-rights advocate, once labeled Sacks “the man who mistook his patients for a literary career.” Richard Powers has a good time with that in his novel “The Echo Maker,” in which he sends a character based on Sacks spiraling into an identity crisis by the fear that he has exploited his handicapped patients in his popular articles.

When it comes to understand how music enters ours ears and lights up our emotions, the outright enjoyable “This Is Your Brain on Music,” published in 2006 by musician and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, reduces “Musicophilia” to permanent second billing.

By the way, Powers might have had a good time with his character based on Sacks; but, that is one among the many things that made reading Echo Maker not fun for me.

UpdatePaul Elie at Slate has similar complaints too:

 The material has the distinctive Sacks touch: at once earnest, tender, and slightly amused. But the anecdotes about music and the neurological disorders associated with it—which are what the “tales” really amount to—reveal surprisingly little about music or about the brain, other than that the mystery and vitality of music are useful correlatives to the brain’s mystery and vitality. In recounting the circumstances of individual patients, Sacks doesn’t evoke the sound of music or the ways sound takes shape as music in the brain. The case studies become examples of the gap between what happens in our brains and what even our most literate experts can say about it.