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.

In this setting, the story of Hersch's illness and recovery unfolds within and between several dream narratives. (Dreams, we know, are mostly fantasies, with elements of real life, and so the drama similarly moves between Hersch's inner world and the actual events.) The orchestra joins Hersch for a suite of movements that express crucial moments within both the dream narratives and the real life story. The denouement consists of a dramatic encounter between Hersch (as acted by Winther) and his image in a mirror. At the end, the real Fred Hersch gets up from his piano and plays the part of his mirror image! This encounter occurs at a crucial moment in his recovery when his physical therapist tells him he must see himself as he really is in order to move forward with his life. The drama ends with Hersch's renewed acquaintance with himself.

The Dreams as Scenes or "Tracks"

The dreams that Hersch remembered from his coma form the basis of each of the scenes, each of which can be thought of as a "track" on a recording augmented with visual images and narratives. The music begins with a sense of mystery evoked by John Hollenbeck's rustling cymbals, John Hebert's bass, and the violin section. Hersch's piano intones the song "Knitting Women," which will later appear as an important dream scenario. The thematic phrase "We end as we begin" appears on the screen.

Winther appears to tell the dream of "The Panel Van," about being carried away in a strange, surreal vehicle which might be related to the real life circumstance of being taken to the hospital in an ambulance. A jazz improvisation conveys a sense of anxiety and confusion, with solos by Ralph Alessi on trumpet and Hebert on bass with the entire ensemble entering the fray. Winther's depiction of the experience is related with the naturalness of a fine "method" actor. The finely coordinated music reveals the enormous talent assembled for the production.

"You Must Pay to Be Released" betrays the ironic humor which recurs throughout.. Winther as "Fred" recalls the period prior to his episode of pneumonia when he was in California playing gigs. We see Hersch's written set list from a show in Napa Valley wine country, and there is a rendition of Thelonious Monk's "I Mean You," which seems to say, "You can't deny this is really happening." Caregiver Scott recalls the day that he found Fred helpless in the bathroom, the fear that both must have felt, and the imminent disruption of their lives. He goes on to describe Fred's symptoms and hospital admission.

Next comes a dream of Fred flying in a plane with Scott. In the dream, Fred gets drunk and giddy. Scott, by contrast, is very worried. Typical of dreams, Fred's euphoria is a cover for his own terror. Scott tells us about the doctors' decision to induce a protracted coma in order to save Fred's life by shutting him down and then looking for the source of the infection in his body. Fred had multiple tubes inserted to keep him alive, and Scott does not mince words describing the awfulness of seeing his lover on life support. . A dream called "Barcelona" skips ahead in time and foretells Fred's laboriously slow rehabilitation after he awoke. The DVD contains a special feature of Hersch's talk to doctors in Barcelona after his recovery, but since it's a dream from the coma, Barcelona may allude to some other experience in that city.

"Brussels" is a fascinating dream. Fred is in a concert hall or church, where a woman is playing an imaginary instrument having features of both a violin and a lute, a precursor of the guitar. Hersch then accompanies her in a haunting piano-viola duet performed with violist Joyce Hamman. This astonishing music of love and grief in itself marks Hersch as a great composer, and Hamman delivers a memorable performance.

"St. Vincent's Hospital" recalls the venerable hospital in Greenwich Village where Fred received care. After he recovered, Fred became interested in the hospital's name and looked up St. Vincent de Paul, for whom it is named. He finds that St. Vincent truly qualified as a saint, a social activist, and social reformer. Some time later, St. Vincent's Hospital closed, and Hersch expresses his sense of the loss of an historical health care ministry with a lament played by the string section.

The musical emphasis resumes with "Dream of Monk" which is both a dream and one of Hersch's compositions. Befitting of the bizarre character of some dreams, Hersch and Monk are in cages next to each other. They are told by some authority that whoever finishes writing a song first will be released. (LOL). Fred feels the time pressure, while Monk composes in a leisurely manner, befuddling Fred. This sequence offers a full jazz performance that really swings.

"The Boy" may be the most difficult of the dreams to interpret and understand. A psychoanalyst would have a field day with it. In the dream, a boy tries to give Fred medication. Then Scott tells us of the time Fred's mother came with him to visit Fred. She saw Fred moving his mouth and said, "He wants to kiss you." So they kissed. There are obvious erotic connotations, and sexual arousal often signals hope and vitality as well, so Scott feels some optimism but points out that Fred's condition would get worse before it got better. Hope against hope.

"The Knitters" is a dream of mythic proportions, one that seems to represent the ancient Greek goddesses. Looking down from above (has he died and gone to heaven?), he sees a group of women knitting! They whisper the opening phrase: "We end as we begin" Do the knitters represent the Fates? Or by their knitting do they symbolize a healing force, Fred's immune system? Sigmund Freud told us that opposites appear together in dreams, so maybe they are harbingers of both life and death, the struggle within Fred to survive. The accompanying music here includes a stunning tenor saxophone solo by Adam Kolker.

Hersch definitely has a sense of humor. "The Jazz Diner in the Woods" is a hilarious concept, including a menu where food items are named for jazz musicians, for example, "Don Cherry Pie." The retelling of the dream is accompanied by a lively hard bop tune, with a notable solos by Bruce Williamson on alto saxophone and Alessi on trumpet. Fred is coming back to life.

"The Orb" is a dream that consists of a single image: Fred sees Scott's face surrounded by a glowing green light. The real Hersch performs a beautiful ballad, a song of love and gratitude for his partner Scott, who faithfully ministered to him through the whole ordeal. We find Fred finally recovering and enduring a long spell of physical and mental rehabilitation. He feels alone and abandoned as he realizes "I am the Fred" who doesn't know names of things he used to know and has to find his way back to his normal self. The drama culminates with Fred (acted by Winther) between parallel bars practicing walking again. He looks in a mirror, and sees a complete stranger, the real Fred Hersch. "This isn't me." This is the divide he must cross, from the self-alienation of the illness and coma to finding himself anew and resuming his daily life with Scott and his loved ones. "We end as we begin."


There is nothing new about jazz theater. Think of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and Kurt Weill/Marc Blitzden's The Threepenny Opera. There is, however, novelty in including improvised music in a theatrical context, although there are a number of precedents for that as well, notably the 1959 off-Broadway production, The Connection where saxophonist Jackie McLean and other jazz musicians both acted and played jazz tunes. What is new is that My Coma Dreams depicts in graphic detail a severe medical condition and the subjective states of the patient and his caregiver. Moreover, the real life patient is actually on stage playing the piano! That beautiful music can be tacked on to such a situation is even more original and compelling.

The entire production is superbly executed, and everyone involved deserves kudos for his or her participation. Winther proves himself to be a superb actor and singer. The highest compliment you can pay to an actor is that he doesn't appear to be acting, and Winther incredibly manages to do that while playing three different parts. He is also a very fine tenor vocalist with refined diction and technique. The musicians are top notch, and the crew that put together the camera work, the scenery, the lighting, and the graphics made all the disparate elements work together seamlessly. Of course, Hersch and Garfein are to be congratulated for conceiving and bringing to fruition such a remarkable achievement.

Importantly, the work illustrates profound connections between dreams, music, and the unconscious mind. Decades ago, Max Graf, a friend of Freud, and Theodore Reik, one of Freud's students, both elaborated on the way music expresses the deepest, hidden parts of the human mind. More recently, Oliver Sacks and Daniel Levitin have explored the role of music in the functioning of the brain and nervous system. My Coma Dreams shows how dreams and music help an individual through the most difficult, traumatic events. The human brain is its own doctor, and dreams and music are two of its most powerful weapons against death. Fred Hersch is a living, breathing example of that fact. The other, perhaps the greatest force in healing is love, and My Coma Dreams is a love story about Fred and Scott. Scott served as an advocate, a cheerleader, and a steady, unflagging presence for Fred, and this story reminds us of the important role of significant others in medical treatment.

Another crucial point that the film makes about medical care is that doctors need to pay more attention to the subjective lives of their patients. Hersch was in a coma, but his inner life of dreams and music continued, and these are vital signs as much as pulse and temperature. Especially when patients cannot communicate, medical professionals need to attend to what the patient feels, thinks, and dreams, sometimes through simple means like touch or a primitive signal system like tapping. As long as the brain is functioning, the patient is "alive inside" and needs to be related to on a human level. Scott was far more aware of this situation than were the doctors.

Personnel: Fred Hersch: composer/pianist; Herschel Garfein: writer/director; Michael Winther: actor/singer; Sarah Wickliffe: animator; Aaron Copp: lighting designer; Eammonn Farrell: video systems designer. The Orchestra: Gregg Kallor: conductor; Ralph Alessi: trumpet, flugelhorn; Mike Chirstianson: trombone; Bruce Williamson: clarinet, alto saxophone, bass clarinet; Addam Kolker: flute, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Joyce Hamman: violin, viola; Laura Seaton: vioin; Ron Lawrence: viola; Dave Eggar: cello; John Hebert: bass; John Hollenbeck: drums, percussion.

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