I was a pianist. As an existential statement that tells you a whole story. Although I was classically trained, I took to jazz improvisation when I was old enough to understand that the Beatles and the Stones were for adolescent kids with hormone highs.
That was when I was 13 and as I didn’t have many friends that shared my passion for music, I had all the more time behind the piano.
I am not sure if non-musicians know that when you play the piano or another instrument, your fingers move by themselves. When you learn at first, you have to think about moving this finger or that one, but as you progress, you think in terms of combinations of fingers. Later still, you think in sequences of movements and rhythmic and harmonic patterns.
By the time I was 16, my hands had become fully independent. As a jazz improvisor, I would listen to the music my hands were making, just like anyone else that would hear me play. This was my Mom mostly.
Depending on my mood, my hands would play magnificent pieces with sad melodies and arresting progressions. Other times my piano would be angry and if it wasn’t for my hands attacking the keyboard, I would have got up and walked away.
When I turned 20, I abandoned my attempts at passing a high school exam and stayed at home instead.
By then, I had already been lost so many times, that school had become irrelevant. My Mom was quite worried and she would send out search parties to bring me back. In the beginning the psychotherapist managed to help but soon his good work was wasted on me. I think they meant well but they had no idea really. All they could do was stare at me. By then, there was no point listening to my music anymore.
Perhaps I should back up a little. The first time I found this place was by accident. I had been improvising on one of Herbie Hancock Blue Note pieces, The Maze. There is a transition two thirds into the piece where he hits a weird chord. Although I could clearly hear the suspended 4th and the 11th and 13th on top, somehow I couldn’t get the right notes. I tried and tried until at one point I played an augmented 6th as a grace note to the 13th that it happened.
Instantaneously, like switching on a TV channel, I saw a bizarre landscape with jagged coloured shapes. The sky, if I could call it that was the darkest black you can imagine. Transparent lilac bubbles floated in the ‘air’, each one perfectly reflecting the entire ‘landscape’.
I repeated the sequence and the same image reappeared. After a few trials, I continued the piece just as Herbie plays it and completely mesmerised, I found myself floating down a path with harmonious shapes on both sides with the odd surprising turn off.
That is how it started.
As you can imagine, I started playing all sorts of different pieces and styles and each one had its own scenery. I have no idea what my music sounded like because I wasn’t listening. I was floating, flying, running, crawling or whatever was the most suitable progression in a world I didn’t know.
That was in the beginning. After a while, a couple years I guess, that world became very familiar and there came a point where it got boring. The few people that heard me play in days told me that my music was extraordinary and my mother seemed quite pleased with me. She told her friends that I was a professional piano player.
It is hard to imagine this now, reflecting on this from my cage, but I can see how she got this idea.
Where was I? Oh yes, I was bored. I had seen the whole musical world as it was in this visual landscape and frankly, much of it was the same. The colours and shapes varied a little but it is like looking at one tree or another.
Not surprisingly, I started straying. I would be skipping down a ‘lane’ with Thelonious Monk and if I saw an intriguing valley or mound off track, I would go there. My hands knew what to play and as I wasn’t really listening it didn’t matter too much what they did.
I explored landscapes I never seen before and I managed to create completely new scenes. I could turn a pink boulder into a melting heap up blue goo. Yellow floating bubbles would explode into deep grey rain and the white mist that built up at the ground would solidify into a huge colourful sponge.
My mom asked me what this music was and I couldn’t tell her. I recorded it once but when I listened back, I just had the same vision all over again so I can’t say if this ‘music’ sounded good. Anyway, it didn’t matter to me. Come to think of it, by then I had stopped being interested in music altogether.
It wasn’t until the psychotherapist described my music to a psychiatrist that I learned something about the sound. He used words such as incomprehensible, chaotic and hellish noise. I smiled. He really had no idea.
I don’t want you to think that I was weird or anything. I could see a world that was invisible to others but aside from that I was the same as anyone else. OK, I was a little introverted and didn’t go out anymore, but that is no reason to associate mental disorders such as Derealization or Avoidant Personality.
But this is not why I ended up in this cage. If they left me alone, I wouldn’t be here either.
They spoke about me as if I wasn’t sitting on my piano stool right next to them. After much discussion they decided that I should be stopped from playing the piano and that I should re-integrate reality and society. The piano got locked and every morning my mother dropped me off at a social centre in town.
I would be lying if I said that I didn’t miss my piano, but, I coped. They made me do really boring things like talking to other people or watch TV. As I said before, I wasn’t stupid so I did what they said. The sooner I was cured, the sooner I could get the key to my piano.
They were surprised at the speed at which I ‘recovered’. Although I couldn’t make up for complete lack of social skills in interacting with people, I wasn’t autistic (much to my psychiatrist’s apparent disappointment) and I learned fast in skills like discussion and even a bit of small talk.
So they let me out.
I still had to go to the social centre but I was allowed to walk in parks, go to shops and I was even allowed to go to bars for a beer or something else.
One day, I went into one of the food stores. A small child tried to pull a bag of sweets from a rack and pulled the whole stand over. The sweets fell all over the floor and the cardboard stand came crashing down.
The noise was unusual and that is what did it. As the sweets bounced around the shop, I saw a deep black sky with blue velvet curtains on the floor, moving like the sea. Yellow squiggly lines bounced between the waves.
I stood still in the middle of the shop, eyes closed. I heard voices in the distant but what was surprising. I could see the voices. They floated in the air like sheets of light. Light beings. Each one was different.
I kept my eyes closed as I left the shop. The sound of my foot steps, the rattling of the trolley wheels and the cooling fans of the fridges: I could see the sounds. The shop was completely transformed into a coloured space within my vision.
Once on the street I kept walking with my eyes closed. The traffic noise, the clicking of high heels, people talking, I had no difficulties navigating.
The world of my vision was extraordinary. I could see cars and lorries as bulging clouds of green fluff. Birds looked like diamonds drifting above me. People’s voice were extraordinary. They were like angels floating alongside me. I could see their faces now. I could see the multitude of colours of their wings; each one a different pattern.
I will spare you the details of the events followed. I kept my eyes shut as I went back to the social centre and when my Mom picked me up, I kept them shut. A few days later, a specialist examined my eyes and determined that there was nothing physically wrong but that the brain was not processing the information from my eyes. My mother seemed almost happy with the diagnosis. She could finally explain what had been wrong with me all those years. She now understood my gift for music and my difficulties at school.
I was declared legally blind just after my 25th birthday.
They taught me Braille and I got a job at the zoo in the bird enclosure. I love the birds, they are truly stunning, certainly compared to people.
The Australian Cockatoo is my favourite. When it screeches I see a huge spiky brush rolling past. Mostly red with yellow spots.
I don’t play the piano anymore. This surprises most people who assume that blind people must play the piano. It bores me so, I simply can’t do it.
Instead I have become an avid reader. I read in Braille most of the time and I have become quite fast. My Mom goes to the library and gets the books for me.
Sometimes I don’t like what she gets and then, I just go downstairs to select a book from my Mom’s book shelves.
I must be careful though, when I read them. It would break her heart if she saw me reading her books.
Things are quite peaceful now and I’d like to keep it that way.