Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist and author, comes from an era and a milieu in which the profession of medicine was one implying general cultivation: he was raised in London, England in the 1930s and 40s by parents who were both practicing medical doctors, and both of them Jews. Classical music is an important part of his life: he is a serious amateur pianist, and a devoted listener. This, his most recent book, unites music and neurology. Sacks plays the role of kindly physician with clipboard, writing up his case notes of many an intriguing patient for whom music has played a large role either in their disability or conversely in their mental health.
The patients generally seem to be high achievers like himself, despite their strokes, their amnesias, their dementias. Brilliant composers, brilliant performers, brilliant scholars. Sacks, who lives and works in New York City, seems delighted to surround himself with those who are not run of the mill.
The cover photograph is telling. There is an elated Dr. Sacks with his mouth open, his eyes closed, and a hand pressing a set of headphones even closer to his ears. My assumption was that this learned man was captured during a radio broadcast, probably a phone-in show. I imagined people on hold waiting to speak to the gentle, inquisitive English doctor about their psychological and physiological connections to music.
After finishing Musicophilia, however, I realized my reasoned guess about the photo was quite mistaken. For there in small print on the back of the dust jacket it says, “The author is listening to Alfred Brendel’s performance of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata.” In other words, Dr. Sacks was ingesting music – just like his patients – and not speaking about it: a perfect metaphor for a book about perception and misperception, and about how music penetrates our brains and souls.
We meet Clive Wearing, a former musicologist who now has amnesia. He knows who he is, but can only live in the present. Literally. Yet he can play Bach on the piano and conduct a choir in music of Lassus. Sacks turns this into a meditation on memory, learning, music notation, and being “in the moment” as a performer.
In another chapter he invites us to consider the hand problems (focal dystonia) of pianists Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman, and other less famous classical musicians who eventually develop uncooperative muscles, through the rigors of their heavy practice schedules.
In still another he rhapsodizes on the stereophonic concept of directional listening which we practice with two ears, by inviting us to meet music lovers who have just a single working ear. Such people cope, and soon their listening procedures compensate, while Dr. Sacks speculates and marvels at the synchrony of ears and minds.
Musicophilia is no more than a gathering of case notes. One can read it with pleasure at random, since it does not progress. Each chapter is its own self-contained story of someone’s disability or quirkiness related to music, along with Sacks’ neurological musings. He confines himself narrowly to adherents of Western music, and principally classical music.
His prose is lapidary and literate, that of the gentleman scholar — though he includes extensive, absorbing footnotes, and a vast bibliography. And yet, this is less a book for the musician than for the armchair aficionado. We musicians already know all too well the spell music casts. Sacks’ case descriptions make me want to sit down and play my piano in earnest, before some neurological catastrophe besets me.