Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/30/2009

Bach, Goodwin, Sacks, and “temporal organization” ***

The Fifth Gospeller

If our family had understood Alzheimer’s Disease well enough to pay attention to my mother for many years before she died, we would have realized she was suffering from that merciless dementia long before we did. Little things. A vehement insistence that dinner in the dining hall of the retirement community be exactly at 4:30 PM. Folding Kleenex in a certain way to stuff up her sleeve. An almost maniacal insistence on wearing a pale blue polyester housecoat when she needed to “dress up,” for us an embarrassing determination, so embarrassing that we bought her new dresses to wear—to no avail. 

I understand now these things gave her comfort. She could control them; they were real and necessary for her to her feel normalcy in her life. 

When these things were denied her (and at other random times), she became angry and obstreperous, even anti-social, in a way that we had never known before.  

Her forgetfulness was humorous or offensive, depending on how it infringed on our plans. It seemed if only she’d try harder she could remember the date and not keep asking. I gave her simple books to read in the belief that, if she but exercised her mind, she could improve her memory. 

Throughout those years (this behavior began many years before we comprehended her illness) she continued one of her favorite activities without interruption—continued it so remarkably that she seemed perfectly normal. 

She played the piano. 

I could forgive her any bizarre, disruptive, or insulting behavior because she played so well. Mom seemed to be drawing on the resources of her youth and playing with more ease and fluidity than she had for many years. She could play any hymn from any book set before her, and much of the time I knew she was playing from memory, her memory “jogged” by the name of the hymn or some mere suggestion of the melody. Her playing was amazing. Other residents of the community thoroughly enjoyed her performances. 

Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat; Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain; and other beautiful books) would not have been surprised. She “. . . [had her] identity and [her] feelings and [her] sense of [herself] given back in the act of recognizing a familiar song and [playing] it” (1). She sat at the piano completely absorbed, her face relaxed and happy as it was at no other time. Watching her hands I marveled that, while the rest of her looked and acted like an octogenarian, her hands suddenly had the grace and flexibility of her youth, grace and flexibility I have always wished mine had. I knew that grace from watching her play as I sat on the bench with her from earliest childhood. Her hands were my inspiration. She had an innate musicality I have never had and never will. 

The Good Doctor

Oliver Sacks has written about neurological disorders since the 1970s. When I first read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings, I had recently been diagnosed with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. Reading his books helped me understand, not that the malfunctioning of my brain was as severe as those he wrote about, but that the brain is wonderfully complex, and it doesn’t take much for a brain to function “abnormally.” Anyone who has seen the movie of Awakenings (or “Rain Man,” for which he was a consultant) knows the awe and mystery with which Sacks encounters neurological “disorders.” 

I have not (as my neurologist insisted) read Sacks’ Musicophilia. At the end of many scholarly articles (the interview I’ve quoted, for example) is the “disclaimer,” This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care. I fear reading his (apparently extraordinary) study of music and the brain would put ideas into my (perhaps) abnormal brain that might become, as Queen’s Quarterly says, “a tool for self-diagnosis.” 

The Great Movie

I am better off thinking about my observations of my mother, and about a most astonishing reality I am experiencing. 

If I had inherited my mother’s natural musicianship as I did her love of music and her impulse to perform, my life would have been easier. Every piece of music I have ever played has come at a great personal cost that I’m amazed I’m willing to pay. I am totally disorganized and undisciplined, so my willingness to spend the hours to master a performance of the Bach Prelude and Fugue in b Minor for Organ (BWV 544) astounds me. I should not be able to do it. I don’t have the innate musicianship or the self-management to accomplish such a performance. 

But it happens (please note I did not say “I do it”). 

Some will say I have a poor self-image, that I am too modest, that I need therapy to improve my ability to think of myself realistically. They hear the Bach b Minor Prelude come from an organ while I’m sitting on the bench and assume I’m performing this wonderful feat (it is an astonishing and ethereal musical work). I don’t believe so. 

For the last twenty or so years, I have been terrified to put that music (or any other such complex chart) in front of me. The thought of working my mind and my fingers through that complexity has been worse than daunting. The thought has been unthinkable. 

The last two weeks I have been sitting at the organ with the b Minor Prelude in front of me, going through the painstaking process of following the score and watching as my hands play the notes. I have in my living room the first organ that Steuart Goodwin (organ builder of San Bernardino, CA, and one of my oldest and dearest friends) built. He won’t mind my saying he has learned as much about organ building as I have about organ playing since 1970. But I have this gem, this source of more pleasure than I can describe, at my disposal. And I have the Bach b Minor Prelude once again in my head (and more or less in my hands). 

I don’t know if I can recreate Bach’s music for anyone else. I will find out soon—some friends will hear me attempt it. Thinking about that moment is terrifying. But it’s not now. All I have to do now is continue to allow the music to happen in the moment I’m practicing. 

Much of this experience is a holy mystery. Oliver Sacks says, “I still find it a most amazing thing to see—how music can donate its flow, its temporal organization, its spontaneity to people who can’t generate any movement or any flow for themselves. . . . I saw the great power of music for people with Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias. So it was, first of all, the therapeutic power of music that got my attention as a physician” (2)

I do not (not yet, at any rate) need the “therapeutic power” of music. Or do I. Do all of us? Perhaps I need music to “donate its flow, its temporal organization, its spontaneity to [me because I] can’t generate any movement or any flow for [myself].” At the very least, it mysteriously donates its “flow” and “temporal organization, its spontaneity” to my life in a way that I can never—ever—generate for myself. 

That “donation” comes without intermediary. It’s instant. It’s unambiguous, undisguised. It happens directly as I press the keys. It needs no video images, no concert hype, nothing extraneous. That’s why the thought has been unthinkable. It’s too personal. It’s between Sebastian Bach, Steuart Goodwin, and me. If it works for you, too, that is, indeed, a holy mystery. 

The Goodwin

 ***  This is, of course, everything I need to say about Lady Gaga.
(1) and (2) Friesen, Eric. “Oliver Sacks (An Interview).” Queen’s Quarterly 115.3 (2008): 442+


  1. You are after all “the son who plays the organ” so this is good news to me. I didn’t realize just how difficult playing had become. It sounds like you are playing because you want to not because you have to. What a concept…kind of like my crafting that I can not do yet.



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