Music and Forgetting
November 27, 2012 — 21:56

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category:   Comments: Off


‘Music and Forgetting’ was first published as ‘The Sounds of Silence’ in the Age, February 2009


My father suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for a decade before he died in December 2001. For about half of that decade, he no longer recognized me as his daughter. He lived with my mother at Point Lonsdale on the south coast of Victoria. I lived with my growing family in Canberra. My visits were infrequent. I could, and have, blamed myself for this. But almost till the end of his life, my father and I and I listened to music together.

The ear has the fewest sensory cells of any sensory organ – 3,500 inner hair cells occupy the ear versus 100 million photoreceptors in the eye. Yet our mental response to music is remarkably adaptable. As Oliver Saks writes in Musicophilia, his study of music and the brain, ‘Darwin saw the eye as miracle of evolution; the ear, in its way, is just as complex and beautiful.’ In Saks’s view, the aim of music therapy for dementia patients should be to ‘address the emotions, cognitive powers, thoughts, and memories, the surviving “self” of the patient…music therapy with such patients is possible because musical perception, musical sensibility, musical emotion and musical memory can survive long after other forms of memory have disappeared.’ Among the examples he gives are those of a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s who ‘plays the piano several hours daily, very well’ and another who, although plaque has invaded a large amount of his brain, ‘remembers the baritone part to almost every song he has ever sung’.

In his last years, my father’s favourites remained the Romantics he had always loved – Liszt, Chopin, Tchaikovsky. This was my observation, though he couldn’t tell me what he remembered, or whether the melodies that made him tap his foot and smile continued to hold meaning for him. He had lost the ability to communicate his thoughts and feelings through speech, though he was adept at repeating set phrases. When we went for a walk to the beach, he would say, ‘go slow’ or ‘not too fast’ because if he tried to walk at a faster pace than a shuffle, he lost control of his legs and feet, and tripped himself up. ‘Go slow’ and ‘not too fast’ were my mother’s phrases, which she repeated like a mantra before we set out, perhaps in order to fix them in my father’s mind, though she was adamant by then that he remembered nothing.

Long before this, I recall my father stopping in the middle of a conversation we were having, suddenly at a loss because the word he needed wasn’t there.

One time I arrived at Point Lonsdale by myself. I climbed the steps and knocked on the door. My father opened it. ‘Who are you?’ he asked me.

At about the time my father forgot who I was, I started playing the piano again. I had learnt for three years as a child, from the ages of eight till eleven. What I remember most about those music lessons is the unpleasantness of travelling to and from them, on an old, heavy bike, up and down Belmont hill. In my recollection of these rides, it was nearly always cold and often raining. The house was dark and the piano teacher grumpy. It was Geelong in the 1950s. My dreams were of escape. I had no patience with my father endlessly playing his 78s of Bing Crosby and Al Jolson, or of him practising at weekends for his roles in Gilbert and Sullivan productions. As I feel again the atmosphere of those practice sessions, it becomes clear to me that my mother much preferred weekdays, when my father and his music were out of the house. I didn’t realize then, though I should have, that the money for my lessons, and my sister’s, came out of my mother’s housekeeping.

It is the melody in music, some researchers say, that makes our minds hold onto it the way they do. Repetition is a way of not saying goodbye. When I took up the piano again, it was to learn, haltingly and over several months, Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat Major. Images of my father as a healthy younger man, a man who recognized his daughter, comforted me as I played. The hardest time for my father was when he still remembered that he used to know the names of things. But even in his last months he could tap his foot in perfect rhythm. It seems that this is what researchers call ‘performance memory’; and that the tune exists for the Alzheimer’s sufferer only in the moment of its hearing, of its sole performance, next day repeated as though new, unique.

I think about this as I sit at the piano, searching out the spaces between notes and chords, counting each rest, and wonder what resemblance mid-way silences have to the final one. Rests in a bar hold suspended all the sounds that have gone into it, yet also hold in anticipation all the sounds not yet made, not yet given breath.

‘I would compare my music to white light which contains all colours,’ Arvo Part once said. His Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten begins with three beats of rest, written into the score, after which he turns a simply descending A Minor scale into a tribute to the composer he admired and would never meet. Listening as the final chord fades is a way of seeking a relationship between movement and the stillness which follows, when confident progression has become impossible.

Long before he died, my father developed the habit of producing questions whenever there was a break in a family conversation. One that confused my children was: where are you going to settle? We’d rented a holiday unit near them for two weeks of the summer. It was the oddness of the word that threw my children – settle meaning what?

‘We live in Canberra’, my son said, as often as an answer seemed to be required of him. My daughter stared, and never attempted a reply. She asked me afterwards, ‘What’s wrong with Grandpa? Mum, What’s wrong with Grandpa?’

My son, four years older than his sister, would not accept that his grandfather’s mind had almost gone, and kept trying to talk to him about the cricket. My father would smile and look bewildered, unable to put two words together on the subject of cricket; then a few seconds later repeat his question. My son spent the whole holiday in an itch and tremor of frustration; with me, his grandmother, himself, and with his grandfather most of all. He went off for long walks and came back with red eyes.

‘It’s nice and quiet,’ my father used to say when I walked with him along the beach. ‘It’s nice and quiet here.’  I don’t know what he made of the sounds of the surf, endlessly repeated, yet never twice the same.

According to Peter Dayan’s interpretation, the term ‘musical’ as used by Marcel Proust in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu ‘signifies a use of language that identifies with something never visible in the meaning or in the analysable qualities of the words themselves; something glimpsed as it is lost..’ Language, human speech, is our tool of analysis, but what is musical in verbal language flows beneath this, and cannot be analysed. We can experience it, but as soon as we attempt to use words to describe it, the essential quality of the experience is lost. Thus music, for Proust, is always bound up with ‘the Orphic look back’, the look over the shoulder that is mistaken, mis-timed, condemning the one who looks to mourn the loss of his beloved forever.          

If a grasp of narrative requires verbal memory and some attention to causality, then my father in his last years lived outside it, as far as I could tell. Yet before his mind went, he wrote a book about his regiment and the part they played in the Second World War. And what is a book if not a testament to faith in memory?

When I heard the Schubert Impromptu on the car radio and found the sheet music and decided to open the piano lid, I didn’t think of my father immediately. My left hand groped and swayed instead of flowing. Images came later, and most often when I paused with my hands just above the notes. Dad was never sick and old in them. The front steps I climbed to hear that unanswerable question were less worn.

The last words I heard my father say were ‘No’ and ‘No, thank you’. A nurse was trying to get him to drink something. He pursed his lips and refused. There was a small radio by the bed, but it was switched off and I didn’t touch it. My father’s eyes were shut. He didn’t open them once, let alone look at me, the whole time I was there.