This aired on FreshAir about Oliver Sacks who was a visionary neurologist and best-selling author such as his wonderful book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat” that examined the mysteries of perception and consciousness by drawing on his observations of his patients. His 1973 book “Awakenings” established him as a writer whose work was adapted into a 1990 film starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro about Dr. Sacks’ work treating patients who had survived an epidemic of encephalitis lethargica, commonly called sleeping sickness. Oliver Sacks died in 2015 at the age of 82.
The interview in the link above is a wonderful discussion with Terry Gross about his book “Hallucinations.” This part of the interview is absolutely extraordinary:
GROSS: You write in your book “Hallucinations” about an auditory hallucination you had that really might have saved your life. You were mountain climbing, and you had injured your foot or your leg. And part of you just wanted to just, like, slow down, sleep. But then you heard a voice, which said what?
SACKS: Well, the impulse to sleep – I’d torn off most of the thigh muscles and the knee was dislocating backwards. And at one point I got quite shocked and thought it’d be nice to have a little sleep. And the voice said, no, that would be death. Go on. You’ve got to keep going. Find a pace you can keep up and keep it up. And this was a very clear, commanding voice. It was a sort of life voice and it was not to be disobeyed.
GROSS: And so you kept going in spite of the horrible shape that your leg and knee was in.
SACKS: Yeah. I was sort of lowering myself down with my arms. I had splinted the leg as best I could with an umbrella stick and my anorak, which I tore in two. Incidentally, I thought that was going to be the last day of my life. And it had every prospect of being, but I was found at twilight by two hunters. This was in north Norway. But that voice was crucial for me.
And I’ve heard many other stories like this. One of them was from a young woman who was brokenhearted after a love affair and determined to commit suicide. And she had a bottle of sleeping tablets and a tumbler of whisky to wash them down. And she had raised the tablets to her mouth when she heard a voice saying, don’t do that. I wouldn’t do that if I were you, you won’t always be feeling the way you’re feeling now. It was a man’s voice. She didn’t recognize it. She was fairly startled. She said, who was that? Who was that? And she said a figure materialized in a chair opposite her for a few seconds, a figure in 18th century dress that vanished. But she feels that hallucination saved her life. And I think her story is not that uncommon. Nor mine, for that matter.
GROSS: Whose voice did you hear? Was it your voice, a stranger’s voice?
SACKS: Not my voice. I often hear my voice. I am always sort of cursing or muttering to myself. But this was a very clear, assured voice, not a voice I recognized but a voice I trusted, which I suppose I realized came from some part of me because there’s no other place it could’ve come from.
And listen to his TedTalk, here:
This aired on FreshAir about Conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin who leads two of the world’s great music institutions: the Metropolitan Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra. In talking about Verdi’s “Requiem”, he says: “It’s a really awe-inspiring piece… and it seems so fitting to hear a requiem now when every day there’s a pandemic death count.” This magnificent piece was composed as a mass for the dead. Yannick explains he choose to conduct this as his first piece in Philadelphia because “we all have to deal with death and life after death and people around us and our own – also our own relationship to living and that, in the end, the – to live this as a community makes us feel less lonely, makes us – in a certain way – hopeful. And this is why maybe it’s relevant to have it now in these times. And, of course, the other reason was a bit less philosophical, but it was about my love for vocal music as much as symphonic music. And I think this requiem is just the perfect example of the balance between the two.”
“The day of wrath, that day will dissolve the world in ashes. How great will be the terror when the judge comes who will smash everything completely? The trumpet scattering a marvelous sound through the tombs of every land will gather all before the throne.”— Reading from the Requiem
Several excerpts that really caught my attention:
GROSS: Verdi himself was agnostic. And it’s amazing to me that he’d write such a powerful, deeply felt requiem when he wasn’t Catholic. He was agnostic. And I’m wondering, Yannick, getting back to the fact that you sang this when you were 15, at what point in your own relationship to Catholicism were you?
NEZET-SEGUIN: First, about the fact of the composers being agnostic – I think that Mozart, in many ways, can be considered an agnostic, too – maybe not so much Brahms. But I’m thinking of another composer like this or at least – at the very least, they all had a troubled or at least questioning relationship to religion, all of these great composers. And maybe that’s what, indeed, actually gave them the necessary distance to be able to really understand what it means as a text. Instead of having maybe a formalized or true accepted vision of what it is that this text means as a prayer or as a believer of one’s faith. And probably – this is just an – it’s hypothetic for me, but it might be the reason why these pieces speak to us so much today and to many generations regardless of if you’re a Catholic or Jewish or a Muslim or a Lutheran. It doesn’t matter at some point, you know? It’s all about kinship of humankind to these eternal themes, which religion is one way of explaining in each.
So at my age, especially in the teenage years, I was still believing very intensely in the Catholic religion. However, it was really the time where I started to understand my transfer of my own vision from believing in God into believing in music, which was a way to God or God’s way of talking to us. And so that piece had a special importance to me because it’s basically maybe encompassed all of my beliefs – a text which I knew well but with the vision of an opera composer who had a lot more to say about life but put all of his best work, arguably, in a religious text.
GROSS: You know, you talked about this requiem as being – like, your introduction to it, when you were 15 and singing, that it was a transition point for you from believing in music – believing in religion to believing in music. Did you ever have the fear of eternal hell, the fear of Judgment Day and eternal flames, that this piece – especially the “Dies Irae” – expresses? Did you live with that?
NEZET-SEGUIN: Interestingly, not really. Or I’m not saying not at all, but this is not the focus of how I conceived and still conceive religion or faith. The expression of it – or maybe that’s now the Yannick, a 45-year-old, talking to you. It’s more – because it’s hard maybe for me to know what I was thinking back then about this. But today I would say that, unfortunately, my fear of it is more what happens on Earth.
GROSS: The suffering? (Laughter).
NEZET-SEGUIN: Right. It’s – yeah, it’s all the suffering. It’s all the danger. It’s all the unknown. It’s all that we are at the mercy of always something greater than us. And the recent months have proven it, you know, that even though we try, we try hard with technology and everything to control our destiny, there’s something at some point that will be greater than us, and we have to react. And don’t get me wrong; I think that with all the fears and the bad – what’s – the tragic death and everything that’s bad that’s happened and is still happening to our world during this pandemic, there’s also hopefully some good lessons from it. And I try to believe that humankind will also see a few of those wakeup calls.
But for me, the – what – the Judgment Day in that requiem, what it depicts for me is more the fears of the human life on our Earth, that we don’t want the Earth to explode in a few decades. We want to take care of it. And I hope that maybe that’s another way to understand this very quintessentially human and not necessarily religious message.
GROSS: When you sang it during various stages of your life, what were the parts, vocally, that were the most just fulfilling and beautiful or awesome, like in the sense of awe-inspiring, to sing?
NEZET-SEGUIN: So, actually, maybe the part as a singer which I found always the most touching and fulfilling is “Lacrymosa.” So that’s at the very end of that second movement, you said, which is a sequence, which is very, very long. Indeed, it’s maybe the end of the first part, first half of the requiem. This “Lacrymosa” with all those tears and sighs – (vocalizing) – the violins and the alto solos and the sopranos. They convey so beautifully, and through a very simple motive of two notes that’s repeated, they convey all the tears of the world.
And the melody itself, which Verdi took also again in his opera “Don Carlos,” which is my favorite of Verdi – (singing in non-English language). It’s so beautiful and not so loud at that moment. There’s something quintessentially vocal, lyrical and tender. I do have different moments as a conductor, though, which I remain, to this day, maybe my most fulfilling when I conduct.
Heard on Morning Edition — October 14, 20205:05 AM ET
David Greene: If we do the work you’re talking about, and we get “this close,” what are we getting close to?
Lori McKenna: We’re getting this close to understanding and seeing [that] we’re all so much more alike than we are different. You know, the world isn’t just our life. The world isn’t just our family. The world is this big wonderful place, and we can get so much out of it if we just understand that we’re all just here to love each other. How can we do that even better?
I believe that people are fundamentally good, and I just think maybe we’ve just been a little bit sidetracked with the negativity. This is a time for us to all sit back in it and realize that we don’t want to move forward that way. We want to move forward in a more loving and positive way.
One Small Step: Courageous Conversations Across A Growing Divide
Friday, October 16, 2020 at 1:00pm
I heard this on my local NPR stations today. It is awesome. So essential for the moment we are living through now.
From NPR: “At one of the most divided times in American history, StoryCorps and NPR Member stations around the country are inviting people to take One Small Step to better understand those with whom they disagree. One Small Step pairs people of differing political views to have conversations with one another out of respect and recognition of their shared humanity.
This hour-long radio special from NPR and StoryCorps, along with member station WBHM, tells the story of a nation divided and one effort to create space for conversation. Host Elise Hu guides us through conversations with StoryCorps founder Dave Isay, expert guests, and the highlights of a live stage presentation in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the first cities to undertake the One Small Step project.”
From StoryCorps: “Is there someone with whom you disagree but still respect? Was there a moment, event, or person in your life who shaped your political views? Do you feel misunderstood by people who have different beliefs than you?“
“One Small Step is an effort to connect people so they can remember that people with whom they disagree are human beings. In doing this, we can begin to mend the fraying fabric of our nation — one conversation at a time.”
“Now, we are doing something different. We are asking people with different political views to record a StoryCorps interview with each other. Why? To break down boundaries created by politics and remember our shared humanity. To remind us that we have more in common than divides us and that treating those with whom we disagree with decency and respect is essential to a functioning democracy.
StoryCorps designed One Small Step to leverage its interview model and begin undoing the idea of “us” versus “them” in the United States. During the pilot phase in 2018-19, more than 800 Americans in 40 cities took part. Now, we’re expanding our effort to heal and humanize each other in the challenging months and years ahead.”
More to come soon!