Fred Hersch: My Coma Dreams

Victor L. Schermer By

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My Coma Dreams
Music composed by Fred Hersch
Conceived, Written, and Directed by Herschel Garfein
Palmetto Records

If you were a composer, would you write a piece of music based on your experience of being unconscious for 40 days in a medically-induced coma? The answer is probably "No!" You'd want to forget the whole ordeal—unless you're a pioneering pianist and composer who is always expanding his reach and someone who for whom bouts of illness are familiar, i.e. a long term survivor of AIDS. That is, unless you're Fred Hersch.

In 2008, Hersch developed a case of severe pneumonia, and the doctors put him in a comatose sleep state to prevent tissue damage until they could treat the infection. [Editor's Note: Readers should know that having pneumonia doesn't mean that doctors will put you in a coma! Hersch's circumstance was highly unusual.] Once he recovered, Hersch's imagination was fired up by the otherwise distressing experience. Impressed by several vivid dreams he remembered after emerging from the coma, he shared them with his friend, the theatrical wizard Herschel Garfein, who previously helped Hersch mount an ensemble version of the latter's Leaves of Grass (Palmetto, 2005), a musical setting of Walt Whitman's poetry.

For My Coma Dreams, Hersch went on to produce a remarkable combination of jazz and classical music (should we call it "crossover," a somewhat confusing term?), intended to be performed by himself as pianist, a singer, and a small instrumental ensemble, all of which Garfein configured to accompany a series of monologues by actor-singer Michael Winther alternately playing the roles of Hersch and his partner-caregiver Scott Morgan (with brief medical comments in the role of Hersch's physician, Dr. Ligouri). Winther, as "Fred" and "Scott." retells their respective experiences of Hersch's incapacitation and recovery. Garfein obtained lots of information from Hersch and Morgan, and wrote a script based on their words. Hersch composed the music, with room for improvisation. They convened a small orchestra, as well as visual and media artists to add suggestive images. Their creative vision became a reality.

Garfein summarized the thrust of the drama as follows: "It's a meaningful exploration of what it is to go to this line of demarcation between life and death. It would be an interesting story even if it wasn't Fred Hersch, but it's like having Orpheus after he gets back from hell tell his story and make a piece about it."

In May, 2011, this unique venture into (medical!) "jazz theater" was premiered in live performance at Montclair State University's Kasser Theater. All About Jazz contributor, Dr. Judith Schlesinger, gave it a rave review that coincided with encomiums in Jazz Times, Downbeat, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the New Republic. Now, three years later, Hersch, Garfein, and Winther have released a superb DVD of a performance filmed live at Columbia University's Miller Theater. Although it is pointed out that the pneumonia that led the doctors at St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village to put Hersch in a comatose state for treatment purposes was not AIDS-related, Hersch is a long-time AIDS survivor. So the DVD is being released on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2014. Part of the proceeds from sales of the DVD will go to the non-profit Treatment Action Group headed by Morgan.

Basic Format

"My Coma Dreams" plays out as follows. We see a sound stage with Hersch seated at a grand piano on the left, a small orchestra to the right of center, and a space for action weaving around the orchestra and the foreground. Hersch plays introductory music, mostly in the American post-romantic tradition of Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem (Hersch previously has written several compositions with a similar flavor, as in Fred Hersch: Concert Music 2001-2006 (Naxos Records, 2007)). Within this musical frame, there occur many improvised jazz diversions. As images are projected on a rear screen and on a transparent or electronic "screen" in front, Winther wanders on stage like Tom Wingfield, the narrator and progtagonist in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. Winther alternates between Hersch and Morgan by donning a jacket, or by moving to a different part of the stage. He does not attempt to enact their personalities, but instead narrates in his own voice in a way that seems spontaneous but is, of course, largely scripted.

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