Midway through my first year of college, I began to experience what I called ‘things’. That remained the banal title for years although déjà vu was also used on occasion by me and the friends to whom I described these episodes.
Déjà vu fitted well as it means already seen which was exactly what occurred though it did not describe my frightening reactions from beginning to end. Seizure is perfectly applicable because I would be ‘seized’, seemingly at random, by a visual image. I could be walking down the street and would be seized by a tree or a traffic sign. I could be seized by music notation, the windows in the front of my house (a common aura) or a face, seemingly for no reason, such as occurred at the train station, which I describe more fully later.
The image would well up and ‘crawl’ inside some part of my head (my gut would also feel it with a kind of emptiness). There was a magical, if sinister, intoxication, as though the image was bringing on some deeper reality, perhaps from far back in my past. There would be an almost sexual enticement—forcing me to stare ever-more-intensely at this image. At a certain point, the intensity would be so great that the image itself would begin to distort and perhaps break apart, often into a numeric or geometric shape. Music notation on the page would become bigger and spread beyond the page: a face would enlarge and I would focus upon a specific part of the face and the shape would seem magically like a Dali painting. A final acquiescence (or so it would seem) and I would lose consciousness
Five to ten minutes later, I would regain my consciousness and then the frightening part would take place. I would not know what day it was, whether it was 9AM or 9PM, where I was or what I was there for. It is, for a few minutes, a state of utter helplessness and loss of terra firma.
Another five or six minutes later, reality would return, if not fully, close enough to feel consternation at myself for ‘allowing’ the seizure to occur. Then, I would go back to whatever task I was involved in—practicing piano, shopping, socializing, twice (only!) in fifty years performing.
After five years, I knew these events were called epilepsy. (I had been seeing a psychiatrist for five years and the word epilepsy was never used.)At first, known as ‘petit mal seizures’, they are now called ‘focal/local partial epilepsy with impairment of consciousness’ as my NYU Hospital web site describes it. In brief, it means that a part of my visual cortex was damaged (perhaps by the same virus that damaged my hearing) and that something, which no one has identified fully, will cause that particular minute portion of my brain to explode when a certain type of stress is placed upon it. These seizures were obviously more noticeable than partial deafness and could not be ignored.
The disturbance of these ‘things’ was mingled with excitement for several years as they seemed to mark me as especially sensitive. Perhaps this was because I loved The Brothers Karamazov, but it was, to a degree, an understandable response, and a sad defense, much like ‘ownership’ re deafness. I spent much time talking to others of the intricacies of this or that seizure and, as they were frequent for many years, I surely tarred myself with a brush which was to a degree unnecessary and, in hindsight, upsetting to the listener.
Additionally, as with hearing loss, it helped me create a sadly ‘cool’ and ironic personality, fit for the late ‘60’s, because somewhere not so deep inside of myself, I was ashamed of this ailment, especially since I thought (as my parents surely did) that I could ‘just say no’ to the visual aura which preceded the seizure. I recall that if I were simply staring ahead dreamily, my father would come up to me and harshly comment ‘hey, snap out of it’. Dreaminess had been part of my personality pre-epilepsy and even pre-hearing loss, but the soup was growing more complex as the various components mingled.
The musical side effects were, I believe, not that major (other than the means taken to prevent seizures!). Seizures destroyed brain cells and my memory, especially for names and faces, was poor. Most significant, and more noticeable now that seizures are relatively mild and much fewer, is the week-long after-effect. Melancholy, fatigue, upset stomach . . . simply an inability to function at my best.
There is indeed a body cycle which for at least two decades has been noticeable and almost predictable. About ten days of normality, ten days of being at my best in terms of quickness, physical state, mental alertness and musicality. Then, the slow imposition of a strange and dominant emotion, often felt as the constant hearing of a particular piece of music—lyrical, simple and from my younger years i.e. nostalgia and melancholy sweet sorrow. I can hear ‘Tonight’ from West Side Story, Deep River with Paul Robeson’s wonderful voice or People Will Say We’re in Love from Oklahoma. I will tell Agnes with a smile that I am ‘vulnerable’ and a few days later, a seizure or perhaps two will occur.
Sometime in the middle of 2116, a new melody began to haunt me—A New Created World from Haydn’s oratorio The Creation. It seemed to run parallel to the optimism I was feeling as the first positive results of the cochlear implant were discernable. The melody itself was very reminiscent of Tonight, and all of the music was strengthening.
In addition, the music struck deep personal chords. Robeson’s ever-present voice in our house (and my father’s connection to him at the famous Peekskill riot in the early ‘50s); my intense fear at the witnessing of the ballet Out of My Dreams and Into Your Arms from Oklahoma which I saw with my mother in the late ‘50s; West Side Story which I saw when I was 13 with my sister and her friends (the gunshot at the end was an enduring shock); The Creation, which I worked on as pianist with the chorus at the High School of Music and Art. I strongly sense that these and various other memories were meant as strengthening agents as the brain recognized the imminence of seizure and looked for a wall of simplicity, optimism and love to protect me from the complex emotions which seizures brought on.
Neurologists are reluctant to posit guesses regarding the nature of epilepsy, admitting that they are still at a primitive stage of understanding (much as audiologists admit their limited knowledge of how the brain understands music). Stress is surely a factor, but I have found that the reduction of stress, whether over an hour or a day, can be as strong a factor in a seizure as vice-versa. I also will ask them, without getting an answer, which comes first—the brain explosion or the fastening upon an image? My hunch is that the explosion comes first and that therefore there is no need for a psychiatric explanation of what a particular image conveys to one’s mind.
I can describe my seizures from the inside but will close with the description of one as seen from the outside, by one who has seen perhaps a hundred of my seizures, my dear and departed friend Agnes. The following is what she recently described to me about a seizure from 2004.
Agnes was driving me to Long Island University in Greenvale where I was to give a Convocation at Hillwood Commons (I am Professor there) at 1PM. I got a seizure perhaps ten minutes from the school while she was driving on Northern Boulevard. As she describes it, I got white, my head collapsed and I lost consciousness. She kept driving, now in the slow lane, and kept an eye on me in case of worsening.
Five to eight minutes later, I started to come out of it. I looked around and said “What’s going on? I don’t understand . . . where do I have to go?” It was like I was trying to connect past and present. Whatever Agnes said did not penetrate . . . so she said “relax”. Ten to fifteen minutes later, I was still not back to reality . . . still asking . . .
She arrived at Hillwood, saw a colleague of mine, but knew to say nothing. She pulled into parking lot and I said “What’s the matter with you?” She said “It’s nice and sunny, let’s enjoy it!”
Suddenly, I hit my head with my hand and said: “My God—I have to give a lecture . . . I left the car and walked to Hillwood. She saw me right before the lecture—I looked great . . . color back, talking and playing excellently in front of a full house of people.
10/27/17 Medicine is having a (perhaps too) strong effect and yoga is calming me down. I was sitting in a chair and felt the beginning of a seizure. It began in my gut, which my yoga instructor told me is a big bundle of nerves. I very clearly felt it rise slowly up to my eyes where I did indeed fasten upon a visual object. Then I felt it continue seemingly upward to my brain. It petered out before my brain could acquiesce but the path of the journey seemed clear. What is the GUT?
I am writing this at sixty-eight years of age. Medication has, for now, provided me a fairly satisfactory protection against seizures. But it was seldom so reliable or comfortable. In the recent past, seizures were stronger, more frequent, and a permanent cloud on my daily life, (much as hearing loss still is . . . )
For me, seizures can occur anytime and anywhere, though usually with warnings. They most often occur when alone, and after some intense experience. I have somehow learned to deal with them safely (knock on wood). Often, they occur in the presence of a friend, which is fine for me. All of my friends are aware of my condition and know to do nothing but watch over me for the ten minutes or so before I regain consciousness. A short spell of relaxed talk and all is back to normal.
They will occasionally occur with people who are unaware of my condition, such as students, colleagues or people living on the block whom I would say hello to and make small talk. One piano student witnessed a seizure during a lesson at my college. He requested a new piano teacher. My neighbor witnessed one as I was walking up the hill and looking at a tree which caused the seizure. He called 911 I suppose and when the police came, I was unaware that I could refuse, thus finding myself in an emergency room with countless other people waiting for a doctor. At the front of the room was a bored-looking nurse. I waited for an hour, burst out laughing and left, vowing never to do that again.
I now know that I should tell individuals or groups what might occur, and it is not just protection, but the creation of a bond. It instantly eliminates fear, as they see a confident and relaxed person describing himself with a smile.
The most difficult and, at times, dangerous situations are seizures in wide-open spaces with people and/or vehicles all around. Places such as a street, a store, a concert hall or a train station. These are what my neurologist calls ‘public seizures’. I have had several in the past decade and they have been emotionally and professionally damaging. Indeed, one was life-threatening. Three of these stand out as memories which will remain with me—one with black humor, one with bitterness and one with unfathomable wonder and life-changing consequences.
First, some background.
I was a very talented red-diaper baby. At four, I was playing folk songs as sung by Paul Robeson or The Weavers on my parents’ Krakauer upright. At six, I was studying piano and marching the students into Assembly with improvised music. It was not long before Sonatinas and Prokofiev’s Music for Children were part of my repertoire.
When I lost 90% of the hearing in my left ear at the age of nine, it didn’t change the direction of my life. It was surely a personal and social disaster, but the musical fallout took a very long time to recognize and still longer to overcome. Oliver Sacks describes my symptoms precisely in his essay “In Living Stereo”.
At eighteen, I started getting epileptic seizures, called petit mal as they were not the stronger seizures. These were explosions in my visual cortex and the expression déjà vu stayed with me for a long time. These were intoxicating, magical and ultimately frightening fixations upon a visual image—a tree, a musical score, a face . . . once the image had me in its grip, for several years with my enthusiastic acquiescence, later despite my efforts to escape, I would be forced to stare ever more intensely at an object which seemed more than just itself—rather a superhuman friend or foe. I would feel that I was repeating my life somehow, hence déjà vu . The more intense the interaction, the more the image would become distorted and surrealistic. At some point, it (and I) would explode, leaving me unconscious for ten minutes and confused for five more.
For many years, I would do what many people with seizures do—talk about it too much. Thus, as with hearing loss, seizures narrowed my life. I slowly recognized the body and chemical cycle which gave a shape to epilepsy. It was a five-week cycle (now perhaps a shorter and weaker cycle) in which there were high points, low points (the immediate days afterwards) and, most strangely, warning signs. For several years, if I heard too much West Side Story (especially Tonight) in my head I would become very nostalgic, near tears, and I would know that seizures were imminent. Later, Oklahoma and A New Created World from Haydn’s Creation served the same function. A lovely and simple melody would be my brain’s way of protecting against the oncoming chaos.
Pianistically, the damage came from the medications used then (and now) to limit seizures. I suspected from the beginning that there was a sluggishness which arose from these pills, whichever the name at the time. When my piano teacher Paul Jacobs saw me take a pill (I was almost bragging to him that I needed medicine) he asked me what it was. I told him it was librium. He looked concerned and said “That slows you down”. I replied “You can see that it doesn’t”. He replied “I’m not so sure”. Thus, a few years after seizures began, the focus was more on the cure than the illness.
Again, I was not deterred musically. I knew what music meant and what music meant most—20th Century music. I was clearly able to overcome the complexities of this music and play it with clarity and spontaneity. Indeed, my pianistic personality was surely built upon my handicaps. Still, playing with the top freelancers in town, I felt that I was a tiny notch behind them. Learning was a bit slower, reacting was less natural and hearing their parts clearly was a greater effort for me than it seemed for them. Partly, it was being a pianist rather than an experienced ensemble player, but part was surely my handicaps. Those who knew me best were aware of my issues and spared a little extra rehearsal time to overcome this. Those whom I worked with but did not know as friends probably did not know—but I often wonder if a person can hide anything from others.
When I was about forty, my musical needs and my vanity prompted me to complain more vehemently than ever before to my neurologist about the mental, digital and visual roadblocks caused by my medicine. I was performing some of the most difficult music to be found and I blamed medicine, in part, for my struggles. I went on a shopping spree of trying different medicines, always seeking a miracle—no or few seizures and a return to the full responsiveness I thought I saw in others and in my own past. It was a fool’s errand.
One medicine produced double vision after several hours. This was present in several rehearsals and concerts. Another made me want to jump out of my front window. A third had no side effects. However, it did not control seizures, as I found out when I had a seizure on my bicycle and lost much of the hearing in my right ear.
My career in ensemble music came to a pretty much immediate end as I could barely hear. While a hearing aid was of some use for speech, it was of no use for music. My teaching and solo career continued seemingly as before, but something had clearly gone out of my life. I changed neurologist, found the one medicine that I think of with affection—Keppra—but added the one I think of with hate—lamictal. And for several years, life was as sluggish as the medication intended it to be. Few seizures, emotional blandness and loss of motivation.
Until 1998: Austin Clarkson of the Stefan Wolpe Society called to ask if I would make an Wolpe cd for Bridge Records, as part of their celebration of his Centennial. I was thrilled with the prospect and soon realized that I would have to take my handicaps fully into account to both learn this complex music (I had only learned his feared Battle Piece, the rest of the music was utterly new to me) and to perform it at the level of electricity and communication it required. I needed a fully active brain and nervous system to ‘hear’ notes I could not hear. I needed the fullest intensity to overcome the harmonic and rhythmic complexities and I needed full command of my fingers, indeed all of my body from eyes to toes, to fully master these works.
I could not, I knew, achieve that with a full dosage of lamictal; hence, with my new neurologist’s acquiescence, I went from 250 mgs to 150 mgs. I would accept the risks for the sake of giving my life back its meaning.
This Faustian bargain was at first most noticeable when practicing these many challenging works in front of me. First, Wolpe, but soon Roger Sessions, Ralph Shapey and many others. This connection was utterly understandable and perhaps even predictable.
One result of my Faustian bargain with lower lamictal dosages was an increase in seizures. This was most noticeable while practicing the many works which I would be learning, performing and recording. It was utterly understandable and even predictable. The increase in my intensity, the hours spent, combined with the further hearing loss surely created a stressful experience for my eyes, ears, fingers and my emotions. The challenges and the rewards were seldom as clear as during this fifteen-year stretch. What was unpredictable was that these seizures became an accepted part of what was a well-ordered life by my standards, centered upon the six hours of pianistic efforts.
In 2008, I described this experience in the postlude to my essay “Musical Freefall” which concerned my experiences projecting the time-space in Wolpe’s Battle Piece. Austin Clarkson suggesting saving this postlude for my memoirs and I include an excerpt below.
Where I am still occasionally vulnerable to seizures is when sitting at the piano practicing complex new music. Most specifically, I must be careful in the afternoon, after a few hours of practice and when working on stages two, three and four of practice regimen. The reason seems to be the ‘friction’ involved in these steps, where I must slowly and intensely think backwards as well as up-and-down for poly-rhythms (finding the proper fingering requires thinking backwards as does phrase gestures and dynamics).
When I am at the low point in a five-week cycle (I now recognize warning signals days in advance), I can find myself practicing and alarms will flash in both my abdomen and in some part of my brain describing an unsettling feeling of emptiness. This is often connected with a micro-sluggishness, which means a reluctance to move my hands to a new position. I usually say to myself ‘finish the page and then take a break’. This is good enough, if I am lucky, but occasionally, five minutes later, I could write a fingering into the score, or see a complex web of lines, and the score will turn into a magical image as a true seizure begins. I still have time to react and, with strong will-power, I force my head away from the score to look out the window. I put a smile on my face and look upwards at what I tell myself is a beautiful and peaceful sight, and calmly walk away from the piano and sit down, with what appears to be little effect beyond fatigue though my close friend Agnes will see or hear me later and somehow know.
If, however, I am very tired, melancholy or worried about my musical career (given my repertoire, it happens often enough), I will give in and ‘allow’ the seizure to take place (‘allow’ has the same degree of vagueness as ‘hemiola’ because a complete seizure probably includes my ‘allowance’). While the seizure offers a temporary respite from the tension, it takes no then a few minutes to regret my ‘weakness’ and strengthen my resolve to stop next time at the most minute warning—a technique of repetition which I learned from practicing and which is slowly but surely winning out.
I quoted Emerson above (“When walking on thin ice, one’s best defense is speed”) because this never occurs in performances or in any up-to-tempo playing. ‘Friction’ and self-consciousness are the factors that allow a minor chemical imbalance to grow to a seizure. While I would be happier if these occurrences were entirely vanquished, they are rare enough and mild enough to live with. Most important, the result of all the musical effort is a true ‘multi-dimensional reality’, unlike the chaotic unreality of seizures.
I should note that my assertion that seizures never occur during performances was disproved a few years later and, additionally, I now have a better recognition of what brings them on.
What perhaps needs more description is the physical and emotional landscape in which I worked during those years. Not only was my chamber music career dissolved due to further hearing loss, but my family was also disappearing. In the early 1990’s I was living with two aging but still active parents, experiencing their shrinking world the way most people do.
By the mid-90’s, I would be practicing and in the corner of my field of vision, I would see my father playing pinochle by himself on the couch in the living room. He was a proud and defensive person who found it hard to admit frailty. He was, in fact, a lonely old man who was secretly getting strength from seeing and hearing his son making music, though he could not say so to me directly (perhaps not yet to himself either). I knew it and yet blocked it from my thoughts and kept practicing, immersed in my challenges.
Five years later, he would still be on the couch, now most often asleep (my mother maintained an active life longer than he did). I still saw him out of the corner of my eye and it seemed easier to block out my thoughts and feelings, as if he were an inert object. Five years later, the couch was empty. My parents were living the remaining few years of their lives in an old-age home and I was alone in a quiet house and a quiet neighborhood with brothers in distant cities.
In addition to the body cycle which brought on seizures, they seemed at this point in my life, to serve an almost family function. When vulnerable in late afternoons, my ‘wait!’ was almost a game, as though I were joking with my younger brother in the far distant past, whether watching Plan X From Outer Space or playing Stratego. The seizures also seemed a validation of my efforts and my goals, as if a heavenly piano teacher was approving of my effort on this day. The ‘game’ of these seemingly innocent seizures was, of course, an illusion, as I found out soon after.
AFTERTHOUGHT: Of all the composers I worked on over this stretch, it seems in hindsight that the music of Roger Sessions was the most powerful path to seizures. The intricacies of fingering and the complexities of the counterpoint were surely part, but I always seemed to feel a special emotional pang when experiencing his music.
The music reflected his personality to the small extent that I had known him and even seeing his face in a photograph. Whatever the brilliance, violence or lyricism in the music, I felt a reserve. Whether this was patrician dignity or, more likely, a pervasive melancholy, I did not know. But I felt it my duty to overcome this reserve and create spontaneous and ebullient experiences for myself and the listener. Wolpe was always direct, Shapey always had a grotesque light-heartedness. Other composers I simply experienced less fully.
Sessions, like my father lying on the couch, was holding something back. Perhaps that extra need to reach inside him emotionally made the intensity of the effort yet more dangerous.
The ‘public seizures’ which I alluded to earlier, did not suddenly begin during this period. I recall one during a performance when I was a Masters student. I recall another at about the same time during a group therapy session (I was taken out of the group as I apparently frightened other members). There were surely others but none seemed significant of memorable until the following three.
Seizures can occur anytime and anywhere, though usually with warnings. For me, they most often occur when alone and after some intense experience. I somehow have learned to deal with them safely (knock on wood). Often, they occur with a friend, which is fine for me. All of my friends are aware of my condition and know to do nothing but watch over me for the ten or so minutes before I regain consciousness. A short spell of relaxed talk and all is back to normal.
They will occasionally occur with people unaware of my condition such as students, colleagues or neighbors. I have frightened many individuals who see a seizure. One student at LIU requested a new piano teacher; a neighbor from half a block away (whom I would say hello to and smile), saw a seizure while I was walking up the hill and looking at the tree. He called for an ambulance and I was unaware that I could refuse, thus finding myself in an emergency room will countless other people awaiting a doctor. At the front of the room was a bored-looking nurse. I waited for an hour, burst out laughing and left, vowing never to do that again. I now know that I should tell individuals or groups what might occur, and it is not just protection but the creation of a bond. It instantly eliminates fear, as they see a confident and relaxed person describing himself with a smile.
The most difficult and, at times, dangerous, situations are seizures in wide-open spaces with people and/or vehicles all around- such as a street, a store, a concert hall or a train station. These are what my former neurologist called ‘public seizures’ in 2012. I had several such seizures in the past decade and they had been emotionally and professionally damaging. Indeed, one was life-threatening.
Lower medication was surely a factor. Stress which was piling up on all sides must have been another. Whatever the complex soup, my doctor ultimately saw a situation which could not be allowed too continue. This would lead to a massive change in my life.
Three of these ‘public seizures’ stand out as memories which will remain—one with a sparkle of sad humor, one with pain, and one with unfathomable wonder.
I entered Chatham Square Music School in 1961 and started studying piano with Augusta Scheiber, a warm and musical woman who lived in a brownstone on Bank Street. It was my introduction to the West Village and, while I never walked west of 8th Avenue, I discovered Bleecker Street and Corner Bistro. I brought my Schirmer’s Edition of the Beethoven Sonatas with me and she wrote on the inside cover: Patelson’s Music Shop 160 W56th Street. Thus began my half-century relationship with the store that many musicians knew as a second-home. They could walk in and simply look in the stacks of music—piano in the front, books in the middle and I don’t precisely know how the back was organized. There was also a staircase which led to used scores, making it the ‘half-price music store’. There were young musicians working there. There was Joseph Patelson, a kindly elderly man with the time to converse with seemingly everyone. And there was Mrs. Patelson (I did not know for quite a while that they were married). She was more grim, with piercing eyes, no smile, and clearly ran the place. I was always a bit afraid of her and probably never said a word to her for forty years.
In 2005, I needed to find various works by Jewish emigres from the Holocaust for concerts in Washington and Goethe Institut in New York. One of the works was by Eric Zeisl—November Pieces which was out of print. I naturally went to Patelsons to look for it. I found myself face-to-face with Mrs. Patelson and we walked up to the second floor to look for old copies. I had never been on the second floor, and walking up the old wooden staircase with this unworldly being made me feel that I was participating in a fairy tale, as though ascending through the clouds to a new world, being led by a cunning half-human. Sure enough, on opening a draw in a dusty cabinet, there was the Zeisl, an old musty score.
BUT THAT IS WHERE THE STORY STOPS. I was staring into the drawer and a seizure came over me. I assume it lasted the usual amount of time and the next thing I recall was walking down the steps and seeing two policemen waiting for me. My wits were slowly returning and I knew that I would not let them take me to an ER. I also began to remember that I had an appointment to meet a friend on Broadway and 72nd Street for lunch.
After a tense twenty minutes, I signed the white sheet absolving the city from responsibility and left. I have no recollection of whether I left with the music I had come for—I don’t see how I could have paid for it, but I have an old musty score of the music so who knows?
My strangest memory was of leaving the store. I was not yet fully myself. My balance was bad and I kept one hand on the glass wall of the building on 57th Street between 7th Ave and Broadway (Chase Bank?). By Columbus Circle, my sense of direction had returned and I indeed ended up on Broadway and 72nd. That was that! Ps: My friend noticed nothing.
A day or two later, I called my doctor to tell him what happened. When I said that I refused to go to a hospital, he exclaimed happily “Good for you!”. That was news to me as I expected him to chide me, but it was strengthening. I was indeed master of my fate.
Many months later, I either needed music, or needed an excuse to revisit Patelson’s. It was very difficult to gather the courage to go there and face what I thought would be hostility or pity. I felt much the way I did when walking up the hill on my block and, for years lacking the ability to look at the tree that caused the seizure that my neighbor saw and acted upon by calling the police. I summoned the courage, opening the door, walked down the two or three steps and found myself back in the store. Sure enough, there was Mrs. Patelson, with what looked to me like an even more stony gaze, as if saying ‘how dare you disturb my peace?’. I left soon after and never returned. A year or two later, the store was gone. Mr. Patelson had died and this home for musicians was no longer.
Strangely, with new medicine, I had the courage to stare at the menacing tree. All went well. The image of a large somewhat barren tree facing me from afar no longer inspired any reaction in my brain. Soon after, the tree itself was gone, whether due to a gas leak, or simply being chopped down, I do not know. Now, I will occasionally stare at the empty spot and try to summon an image in my brain to see if I can re-create any of the magic. I cannot. The medicine is utterly triumphant and the visual aura that haunted me for so many years is gone. I do not feel any nostalgia for those ‘good old days’ but I do miss Patelson’s.
Bargemusic had become a vital part of New York’s musical life before the turn of the Century. Olga Bloom had turned a coffee barge into a ‘floating concert hall’ in Fulton Ferry Landing and Mark Peskanov was the Artistic Director. Soon after discovering its existence, I realized the great interest they had in modern repertoire. I contacted Mark and gave my first recital there in 2008 as part of their ‘New American Music’ series. I would be promoting myself, my recordings and the composers who were closest to me personally and musically.
For my premiere performance, I did what a responsible performer would do—I played musical ‘friends’. That meant music which I had performed often and knew well. It included music of Ralph Shapey and Roger Sessions, which I had recorded for Bridge Records. It included music of Wolpe, always a friend, a short work of Pozzi Escot, a dear friend, and the Carter Sonata, a work which for some reason required no more than a day’s preparation despite its length and complexity. I must have learned it when my mind and spirit were at their height.
Meeting Olga Bloom at the concert was similar to meeting Irma Wolpe decades earlier. Olga Bloom was a dignified lady, more Russian than American. I greeted her and she told me that ‘the New York Times is here’. I replied with what I thought was self-deprecatory wit and said ‘well, that makes me nervous’ with a smile. She stiffly said something like ‘you are not supposed to get nervous! You must play your best!’. My recollection is that I assured her that I would and then simply readied myself to perform.
It was a success (the Carter did its job as it was singled out for praise) and I was invited to return the following season. I did so and now began including newer works by composers such as John Harbison and Shulamit Ran mixed in with my friends Wolpe and Sessions (different works than the previous year). The Harbison Sonata was only my second performance and was still a struggle in places. I felt, mistakenly, that anything less than full mastery, i.e. staring at the score, digital struggles, lack of spontaneity, made a performance to some degree a failure. I felt that here, but he was largely happy and the notion that effort is indeed part of a performance began to take root in my consciousness, though I am not yet fully persuaded that anything less than ‘effortless’ is somehow to be apologized for.
The third concert, in 2010, contained two major challenges to go with several friends, including Bartok’s Out of Doors and excerpts from Messaien’s Vingt Regard sur l’Enfant-Jesus, works which I had performed for decades. The challenges were Eric Moe’s Three Ways to Relieve Tension and Elmar Lampson’s Per Axion Esti, an American premiere.
Both were plain and simply VERY DIFFICULT . . . Moe was a scintillating Mendelssohnian scherzo in modern dress. Lampson was a contrapuntally complex work combining Wolpe’s rhythmic independence and Messaien’s three-staff chordal writing. In addition, the notation of both works was smaller than usual and after cataract surgery a few months prior, my vision was as much a handicap as my hearing. Thus, I was not really the master of either—they were not memorized, my fingers could not easily find the chords in Lampson and my eyes could not look ahead easily in the fast-moving Moe.After a short work of Ursula Mamlok opened the program, these two closed the first half. I remember telling my page-turner ‘if I get through the first-half I am home-free’. This was reminiscent of an all-Martino concert fifteen years ago at Miller Theater. I was struggling with the double-vision described above, and I told my page-turner that if I was lucky the double-vision would not occur until the final work, which I had largely memorized. I was exactly right and the concert was a great success.
Unlike the Martino concert, my prediction here proved wrong. I got through the first half better than I expected, though with intense effort. The second half began with Bartok and indeed, all was a piece of cake. Until the last movement, Chase. Halfway through the piece, with its cascading left hand sixteenth notes, and its right hand violent melody, I felt a seizure coming on. It was probably the score that created the aura—I don’t remember. I did what I often did when practicing—I kept going, desperately trying to ignore the oncoming explosion while keeping up the left-hand quintuplets. At a certain point, the seizure won. I stopped, was probably unconscious for the usual amount of time, and, unfortunately, a degree of destructive chaos took over the hall.
My friends, and my neurologist, who often attended my concerts, knew what had happened, and tried to tell the audience to stay put and be patient. The people in the control room did not understand and turned off the lights and stopped recording the event. Thus, half the audience left and half stayed.
I did recover and apparently my friends persuaded the people in the control room to let the concert proceed. Thus, lights were turned back on and, with half the audience, I finish the concert. My only memory, confirmed by my former teacher Louis Martin who was present, is that the first piece I played, utterly unintentionally, was the Schubert G flat Impromptu—not on the program, but one of my most beloved friends which I first learned a half a century ago (Louis told me it was a beautiful performance). I then played Messaien, though I have no recollection of it, and only remember being driven home by my friend Jonathan, who turned pages.
I should note that this utterly unexpected seizure seems to confirm my sense that seizures often occur when there is a steep and rapid decline in stress. All my mental efforts went into the first half. It must have been a precipitous fall into the comfort zone that followed that allowed this to occur.
I never performed at Bargemusic again. I tried to contact Mark once or twice, with the same difficulty as opening the door of Patelson’s. It is necessary to realize that these sad consequences are understandable, and to allow common sense to be triumphant over one’s emotions. I do recognize more than I ever did that he, like others whom I have had experiences with, to the extent that he remembers me, wishes me well and respects me and then goes about his own life. I will take a train to attend a concert at Barge and will, I am pretty sure, enjoy myself among people and music. The memory is still there, but it is not noxious, and I cannot let such memories poison my life.
In April of 2012, I woke up and casually enjoyed a morning of breakfast, newspaper, telephone, shower, shave and a touch of piano playing. I would be giving a lecture/recital with my colleague Austin Clarkson at Columbia University at 3PM on the music of Stefan Wolpe. It was a casual and pleasant mood because I had the rare blessing of playing and discussing music I had performed often and recently recorded—a breeze compared to first performances.
I would follow my new routine: avoid buses and #7 subway, walk to the Bayside Station of Long Island Railroad and catch a noon train. That way, I would arrive early, have lunch, find the Music Building, and perhaps socialize a bit—all without looking nervously at my watch. I got to the station early, and events quickly began to conspire against my relaxation and indeed became surrealistic. My best recollection provides the following.
I was waiting on the Eastbound platform, presumably due to track work on the regular side. I looked up at a large ad on the wall of a building nearby. Now, what should not have happened, happened. The woman’s face on the ad grabbed me and would not let me go. This aura grew more intense. I tried to look away and keep relaxed and thinking of other things, but after a vain effort, I imploded. An epileptic seizure at the worst possible moment.
The next thing I knew, I was walking on the railroad tracks—Westbound, towards the city— blithely, as if in a dream. What will always leave me clueless is: HOW IN THE WORLD SOMEONE WITH POOR BALANCE MANEUVERED FIVE FEET DOWN TO THE TRACKS WITH MY ATTACHE CASE STILL ON MY SHOULDER.
I kept walking. A few minutes later, the world seemed to be returning a little. I saw a man on the street above the tracks waving to me to get off the tracks and climb up the hill. At first, I thought he was saying hello. A few minutes later, I realized he had a point—it was dangerous. I looked for a location to get off tracks, found one, casually walked up the hill, found a hole in the fence and found myself on Station Road.
My memory was beginning to return and I realized that I was there to catch a train to New York—I did not yet remember why. So, with a bit of difficult logic ie.2+2=4, I turned around and walked back to the station, ready to catch the next Westbound train. By now, I was fully conscious of where I was going, what I was going for and when I had to be there. Thus, urgency and concern began to creep into my being.
At the station, however, there were two policemen waiting for me. I had by now returned to reality and I knew what the script would be and what I would have to do to reach Columbia University.
The police wanted to take me to a local hospital. This had happened to me several times. The first time, I was timid and naïve (I thought I had to go) as described above, but knew to never let it happen again.
This time, with urgency and rising vehemency, I told them that this has happened before and, as they can see, I am recovered. I showed them the piano scores which I was to perform and I am not sure what effect that had for good or bad (fittingly, one work was called Stehendemusik or ‘timeless music’—an apt description of a seizure). However, after thirty minutes of fruitless talk (my doctor was unreachable), the magic pieces of white paper were served for me to sign. While I never read them fully and barely heard the offices’ talk, the gist was that I signed an agreement stating that I was allowed to go, and any dangers or incidents were my responsibility—not the city of New York.
Thus, I waited a while for the next train, anxiously staring at my watch and frantically calculating the probable length of the trip. All memories of the LIRR, the 7th Avenue Express, the 7th Avenue local and the hectic search for the Music Building are gone . . . the next thing I remember is entering the lecture room about eight minutes late, and seeing Austin’s eyes wide in astonishment. I never knew whether it was my clothing or my face that showed the odyssey, but as always, something remained denoting seizure. After a few self-conscious minutes of lecture, I performed Wolpe’s dizzying Waltz for Merle with aplomb and thereafter was sharp, witty, i.e. myself.
After a brief dinner with Austin (I never told him what happened and I do not know if he guessed) and perhaps others, I took the local and express downtown and the LIRR Eastbound to Bayside and walked home. It was a fitting ‘spiegelbild’ or ‘mirror-image’ common in Wolpe’s music and an apt metaphor for the day’s events.
Once on the railroad, I could relax and let my thoughts stay with me. I knew that what had happened marked the end of another stage in my battle with epilepsy. For several years, I had engaged in a Faustian bargain with the acquiescence of my neurologist. I would take less of a particularly handicapping medication (lamictal) in order to learn, perform and record many challenging modern keyboard masterpieces. The risks of more and perhaps more intense seizures would be accepted for the sake of reaching the speed, energy, precision i.e. the MASTERY which the music required.
I reached home and, for two days, told no one. I let the indisputable facts and logic reach me before talking. This was the third such ‘public seizure’ which had occurred in the past few years, but never before had my life been on the line. I contacted my neurologist who seemed both shocked and admiring. Second, my fellow Queens resident and close friend George. I told him while he was driving—a mistake as he almost drove off Lefferts Boulevard. I waited several days before telling my dearest companion Agnes and indeed left it at that—a bridge to be crossed.
The ‘bridge to be crossed’, not for the first nor for the last time, was, indisputably, safeguarding myself from such events. It meant increasing the dosage of lamictal, and, a few months later (after completing a CD) adding yet another medication. I was not in a position to argue or play coy with those basic facts.
Hence began a new chapter, and the most distressing to experience and even write about. I would go through the same debate a year later. Much like the Mozart A minor Rondo, the variations of the ever-returning theme could not hide the melancholy, and the contrasting sections, even though in ‘happy’ major keys, were all tinted by the same motif. For me, hearing loss and epilepsy tint daily life, but music and the successful efforts to bring it to life, will give me strength and wisdom and I slowly realize have already allowed for a resolution in the tonic.
David Holzman is a concert pianist who has won acclaim for his performances and recordings of many of the 20th Century's most challenging masterpieces. His essay on pianism, specific composers and himself have appeared in numerous scholarly journals and he has appeared in numerous films. He is Professor at Long Island University. Visit his website at www.battlemuse.com for more information.