The Frontal Cortex

The Blooming Self/Yo Yo Ma

The NY Times has a kind review of the Bruce Adolphe/Yo Yo Ma/Antonio Damasio performance that I was lucky enough to hear in person. (I also got to ask the collaborators a few questions afterwards, as moderator.)

Most composers would shy away from depicting the evolution of consciousness. Well, maybe not Mahler, who grappled with the afterlife in his “Resurrection” Symphony. Mr. Adolphe, who had already written two works based on Mr. Damasio’s writings, plunged right in.

The result was “Self Comes to Mind,” a 30-minute work for cello and two percussionists, with video imagery based on brain scans and with texts by Mr. Damasio. The piece had its premiere on Sunday night at the American Museum of Natural History. The 900-seat LeFrak Theater was packed for the event, which included an hourlong discussion with the collaborators.

Just how the human brain works remains one of the greatest mysteries in science. In his program note Mr. Adolphe suggests that music itself may be an expression of our physical minds, though, he adds, composing is never a matter of musical illustration, but of finding “technical and expressive parallels to extra-musical ideas.”

The cello was the protagonist of the piece, the self emerging from a cacophony of percussion. You could almost hear the “somatic markers” in the hopscotch of beat – there’s the pulse of the heart, there’s a rush of adrenaline, there’s the slackening of the gut. Interwoven with these sometimes disjointed rhythms was the emotive narrative propelled by Yo Yo Ma and his cello; the melody of these strings was entangled in the percussion, just as the brain is entangled with the body, and yet it was also separate, distinct, something new.

I thought the music was a beautiful analogy of a difficult scientific theory. (Damasio’s eloquent text, which preceded each of the movements, helped make this analogy a little bit more transparent.) It was also an immense pleasure getting to watch Yo Yo Ma rehearse, as he insistently struggled to make that “narrative” more intense, more emotional, more palpable. Bruce Adolphe, the composer, remarked that part of what Ma was doing was learning how to play the music less literally, as he felt for the heart of the piece. In that sense, the brain isn’t so different. Our self is also a slight abstraction, an emotional story we tell ourselves about our own sensations.


  1. #1 Martha Farag
    May 6, 2009

    “Our self is also a slight abstraction, an emotional story we tell ourselves about our own sensations.”

    I had to read that a couple times to understand what you were saying, but I don’t think anyone could have put it more…elegantly profoundly.

  2. It is said that Mozart and other masters (or should I say: geniuses) of orchestral music unconsciously used some complicated mathematical formulas to compose. Not only can’t we imitate their work, but also most of us don’t understand it entirely. Looking at those people I always feel so small… I hope I will have an opportunity to listen to the Bruce Adolphe/Yo Yo Ma/Antonio Damasio in person.

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