Through The Lens - Moonlight Sonata: Deafness In Three Movements

Aug 16, 2019

In her new documentary film, director Irene Brodsky follows her son Jonas as he sets out to learn Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” Like the legendary composer, Jonas is deaf, and struggling to live between the worlds of sound and silence.

In her new documentary film, director Irene Brodksy follows her son Jonas as he sets out to learn Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” Like the legendary composer, Jonas is deaf, but his cochlear implants offer him access to sound and silence. As he struggles to live in both worlds, Jonas’s grandfather, who is also deaf, faces a new challenge. The film is called Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements, and Brodsky joins us to talk about it.

Note: RadioWest is on a short hiatus, but we will still be airing our monthly documentary film series shows throughout the summer. Tune in to hear this one-hour special Friday, August 16 at 1 p.m. MDT, or Saturday, August 17 at 3 p.m.

On Wednesday, August 21, RadioWest and the Utah Film Center are screening Irene Brodsky's documentary Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements at 7 p.m. at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in downtown Salt Lake City. This is part of our Through the Lens series. Brodsky will join on-stage the film for a post-film Q&A. DETAILS

GUESTS

  • Jan Swafford is a composer and the author of biographies of Charles Ives, Johannes Brahms, and Beethoven.
  • Irene Brodsky directed the documentary film Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements.
  • Tahria Sheather produced Moonlight Sonata.

SHOW TRANSCRIPT

DOUG FABRIZIO: From KUER in Salt Lake City. This is RadioWest.

I'm Doug Fabrizio. Irene Brodsky's latest documentary premiered at Sundance this year. It's kind of a sequel. A few years ago she made a film about what it was like to grow up as a hearing person with deaf parents.

Well, the deafness skipped a generation so the new film is about her son Jonas, who is deaf.

Brodsky is thinking about that genetic mutation that caused the deafness in her family when she describes the film as a meditation on what is a mistake and how the mistake becomes music. Because music is important here. Really, the film is about how her deaf son wants to learn to play Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata."

It's called Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements.

Brodsky has called it a meditation on deafness. As I mentioned, Jonas is deaf both of her parents are deaf. She's not. As she explains it in the film, Jonas's life, her parents's lives, really even her life was shaped by this experience of deafness. But her son and her mom and dad, they've all had cochlear implant surgery so they can hear things now when they want to. And the film explores what it's like to live in the worlds of silence and sound.

The film revolves around Jonas's efforts to play a piano sonata that came at a really critical time in Beethoven's life. The legendary composer was young and at the height of his power, he was brilliant and an intense pianist and of course an amazing composer. He was touring around and putting out all this mind blowing music.

But it was around this time Beethoven realized he could lose everything, because he was going deaf.

The composer and biographer Jan Swafford--who's not in the documentary--told us about how Beethoven went to the countryside outside of Vienna in 1882, to a village called Heiligenstadt, and he was hoping that getting away, that taking a rest could help cure him.

JAN SWAFFORD In the progress of a disability there is a period of hope.

And then there's denial.

And then there's a period when you realize it's not going to get better. And at some point in that there tends to be a collapse of one kind or another and you either get past it or you don't. And that summer of 1882 in a Heilinenstadt, was when Beethoven had his collapse.

DOUG FABRIZIO Swafford told us that Beethoven may have felt desperate about his condition, but there in the countryside, he was full of energy. He was writing all kinds of music, sending off all kinds of letters--letters doing business and letters complaining. He'd already gotten a reputation of being prickly and cranky. But there was one letter he wrote, one in particular, that showed what he was really going through.

JAN SWAFFORD It is a letter that he wrote to his two brothers which he probably never sent. It's been said, and I agree, that it's almost a combination of a suicide note and a cry of defiance against his fate.

Basically he says, people who think I'm misanthropic, you don't know why.

No deaf person, as far as I've ever heard, had ever made a career as a composer. That's one thing. And it was also going to wreck his career as a pianist, which was more than half his income, and half his identity.

And of course he considered killing himself.

But then he says the really significant thing. He says, I could not imagine killing myself until I've done everything that I think I'm capable of.

So he said, I decided to prolong this wretched existence.

DOUG FABRIZIO Remember, Beethoven is in his early thirties. He still had years ahead of him. Some of his greatest work was still ahead of him. At this point he had only written one symphony.

JAN SWAFFORD He had just announced to a friend of his, I'm not happy with anything I've written. I'm going to take a new path from here on. And when Beethoven said things like that he meant them.

And that's gonna get us to the Moonlight Sonata.

So, with the Moonlight, he may have had this idea of a babbling, Doo doo doo Doo doo doo Doo doo, and the idea of trance. And as a composer, what strikes me about it is that it's extremely simple music. It is this sustained trance. And he had an idea ,maybe I'm going to make this very intensely inward and introspective piece. And he picked the key of C sharp minor, which was very unusual. Beethoven was interested in unusual keys.

C sharp minor is very awkward to play on the piano. But it also had a tradition of being, as one theorist put it, and conversation with God. Which I think is one way to describe the extraordinary first movement of the Moonlight. That it's prayerful, it's inward. But I think there's also a profound melancholy in that piece that defines melancholy in a way that nobody else ever had before. That piece simply does not sound like, emotionally or pianistically, like any other piece.

And this letter that he wrote, it's so considered that he probably drafted it and then copied it out. And he sealed it up, and then he wrote this just explosion of anguish on the outside. And that ended, will I never feel a day of joy in my life?

That would be too hard. It would be too hard.

And here's another thing about Beethoven. Yeah, he was ambitious in worldly terms, but he'd been taught that it was his duty, his solemn duty, to serve the progress of humanity. And that's why he said, I can't leave this world until I've done everything I'm capable of. I know I'm capable of great things. I don't think I've really done them yet to the full extent of what I'm capable of. And it's my duty to do that. Not only my necessity to make a living. It is my duty to the world. To do everything I'm capable of.

DOUG FABRIZIO Composer and biographer Jan Swofford the filmmaker Irene Brodsky builds her film around her deaf son, her deaf parents, and the Moonlight Sonata. If you set aside all of the other elements and questions going on in the film about what it's like to be deaf, what it's like to go back and forth between being able to hear and not, the documentary basically is just about Jonas, Brodsky's son, who's deaf and who wants to learn to play Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

We're going to be screening the film next Wednesday. We'll give you details about that a little bit later in the program.

We were joined by Brodsky along with the producer Tori Sheather for the conversation, and we began with Irene, who says growing up with parents who couldn't hear but she came to see deafness not as a medical condition but just as something that shaped who she was.

IRENE BRODSKY: Well deafness, I think first and foremost, centers around communication and expression.

We often think of deafness as being cut off to, you know, the world of sounds around us. But I think essentially as human beings were compelled to communicate from birth, right? So, as a child, if you ask me what are my earliest memories of deafness were, it really has to do with communicating and how I communicated with my parents.

For example, if I wasn't looking at my parents, my parents could not quote hear me. And that's because they were trying to read my lips. I was signing a little bit as a kid, but my parents are also very good lip readers. So, I sort of did a combination of using my hands, but mostly looking at them in the eye, looking at them so that they could see the movements of my mouth. And I'm talking about when I was 2, 3, 4 years old.

So, what that also meant was we had a round kitchen table. We had a round dining room table because round tables allow you to always be looking at everyone even to your immediate right and left at a at an angle. And you don't have to completely crank your head to be able to lip read someone. So, when I say that deafness shaped who we were it really was just sort of the way we functioned in our home communicating with each other and moving throughout the house and how we got each other's attention.

We would flip the light switch to get mom and dad's attention. We'd stomp our feet on the floor. And the sign name I have ever since I was a little girl, if you can picture this, is to put your pinky up to your chin--your pinky straight up is the letter I, in my case for Irene--but it went on my chin, and my mother gave me this name because as a kid she always had to remind me to turn my chin or my face towards her so that she could understand me. So my sign name is basically an I on the chin sort of pushing the chin towards the speaker.

DOUG FABRIZIO Let's explain to listeners what's happening in this documentary. The focus, principally anyways, is on your son Jonas. Jonas was born at first being able to hear, but over time his hearing diminished. And then, when he was still very young, for the audible world for Jonas finally closed.

Talk a little bit about what you wanted to do with that story what how you were thinking about this as a something you wanted to say or convey in a film.

IRENE BRODSKY Well as a filmmaker, as you might imagine, I take a lot of movies of my kids. So that was not an unusual thing when my son Jonas was 18 months old we realized he was missing a lot of his hearing in the high frequency range which really gives language a lot of its elegance and finesse. So, he was hearing a lot of low frequency vowels but he was missing a lot of consonants.

Over the next two years, that window that I show in the film, it's kind of like the the bandwidth or the band of sound it just was getting narrower and narrower. So imagine if you were just trying to squeeze sound through a smaller and smaller slit, you know. And that's basically what was happening with him early on in this process. I actually started filming him with professional equipment and the help of a cameraman who I'd worked a lot with earlier in my career.

And that was because I do have a long running relationship with HBO, a creative relationship with them. And Sheila Nevins, the head of HBO at that time, had suggested that they support me just to track his progress. We didn't know if it would be a film we didn't know what would become of it. We didn't even know how deaf he would become. Well, he became very deaf, and he did ended up deaf enough, as I say, that we we wanted to give him cochlear implants. So that part of the film does have some pretty extensive documentation, but we did not actually decide to make the film until Jonas was eleven and it was really Beethoven and the Moonlight Sonata itself, his desire to learn this piece on the piano, that made me go back to that old footage and say let's use some of this and let's tell a story.

DOUG FABRIZIO You said in part This film is a meditation on deafness. What do you mean by that.

IRENE BRODSKY I've always really struggled with the binary aspects of the deaf experience. Is it a good thing or a bad thing? And there are many permutations of the deaf experience, I think. And while I am a fluid signer in ASL, I also lived in England on the campus of a deaf school. I taught at a deaf school in Nepal. I really value sign language and I value communicating visually. I mean I'm also a filmmaker, right? But you know, to put it frankly, I grew up in a home where I saw my parents constantly being underestimated by their deafness. And that's not only because as a society in the 70s we thought very differently about what a disability is. But my parents were disabled by their deafness. There were no captions. They had no way to use the telephone except for a TTY, which was deaf person to deaf person. My parents were constantly overlooked for job opportunities. They were not always treated respectfully. I would have police officers, teachers, cash register attendants talk to me as a 5 year old instead of talking to my 35 year old mother who really deserved their respect. So, I saw all these things happen as I was growing up and I also saw how deafness can be unkind. And it can be unkind to someone's sense of who they are. So, I think I do have a lot to meditate on because it's not a very good or bad equation for me. It's one that's filled with lots of complexity, much like our experience I guess as humans.

DOUG FABRIZIO Yeah. As you mentioned, in the film, Jonas wants to play Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. What did he know about the Moonlight Sonata? Why is it that this piece that he wants to play? Which his piano teacher, by the way, thinks is just too tough for him at this point.

IRENE BRODSKY Jonas's grandfather on my husband's side, his grandpa John, he has been playing the Moonlight since he was a young kid. It's the song that he busts out at a dinner party it's a song that when he sits down at someone's piano in a new house he walks into he plays it. Yeah. So it's just that song that Jonas grew up, once he had his implants in, he really grew up hearing all the time.

He had no idea who composed the piece. He had no idea about the story of Beethoven as he wrote this piece. He had no idea that Beethoven had been coming to terms with his deafness when he embarked on this gift he's given us all called the Moonlight Sonata. So it really wasn't until he told his music teacher that he wanted to learn the piece, and for a couple of months she said no no no. But he just started doing it on his own. He just went online got the music printed it out on the printer and just started learning the first few bars. And I just fell in love with the piece just listening. And of course I knew the rest of it because it's a common enough piece. I recognized it. But then as I was sit there and listen to him play I started reading about it. And then I started reading Beethoven's letters. And then I realized this is really an unbelievable coincidence. Maybe I need to pick up the camera.

DOUG FABRIZIO You ask some questions about Beethoven and Moonlight Sonata, and one of them is if he's going deaf, where did he come up with this melody? And you also ask, Where did he find his voice? And that seems like a really important theme in the film. What did you mean by by his voice?

IRENE BRODSKY Well I think you know if you use voice as a metaphor for expression certainly we all have a changing voice throughout our lives. And the sign of a good artist, I would think, is one who evolves. But the the experience that Beethoven had, I think only really Beethoven understands that experience. But I think we can look at someone like Jonas in the 21st century, a deaf kid learning how to play music somewhat based on what he hears and somewhat based on his memory of what sound sounded like before it was more digital which is what he hears now. And I think that Beethoven really went through a metamorphosis as a person who was losing his hearing. So on the one hand he was losing, but he was also gaining a tremendous amount of freedom because the deafer he became the less he would even be able to tune in to the popular melodies of the day, to the popular franchise of sound, of music at that time. You know I think there was a certain freedom to it. And I'm certainly not a musical scholar but through the course of the film I I certainly tried to better understand where Beethoven fit into his peer group. And you know the Moonlight Sonata itself is structured in a way that broke the rules at the time. No one ever wrote a sonata that started slow. And yet the slowness of this piece is I think its defining feature. So it's really I think a piece of music that was not created in spite of his deafness. I think it was created because of his deafness.

DOUG FABRIZIO Tahria Sheather, I want to bring you into the conversation at this point because I want to get your sense of this... This is such a personal film that Irene made. And so I wanted to get your sense of you as you're observing this filmmaker, as you're co-creating this film together, and you're seeing her tell the story that's deeply personal of course for all the reasons we know, what are you seeing? The way she tries to find that balance between being mom or daughter and you know artist and filmmaker and try to make a film that's that's legitimate, that is honest. What are you noticing?

TAHRIA SHEATHER I think it's incredibly challenging to tell a story this intimate because you are playing so many roles at the same time. And I think throughout the production process--I also shot and recorded field sound on a lot of the film, and we also worked with a DP out of New York, Nick McQuade--and I think we would often find ourselves you know at one moment in the midst of a scene and then at the other moment pausing to put dinner on the table for everyone. And there was this real fluidity in the boundaries of the filmmaking process and I think that was incredibly challenging. But that also brought out these more intimate close vulnerable scenes. I think spending that time with the family having that familiarity with the camera over a long period of time really you know allowed us to just become part of the family. And so the cameras sort of blended into the background.

But I think as a director, I certainly saw that there were a lot of hard decisions. And having myself as an outsider's perspective, having a wonderful co-editor Bill Weber, having our DP, these sort of outsiders that would come into this world momentarily, from time to time, that those perspectives were so valuable because we really could say, actually, no, we need to push harder here, or let's let's back off here, or we need to hear Irene as a character come through more here, or maybe that's not resonating. So I think getting out of that fishbowl of one's family life and having fresh eyes on a story I think is really an essential part of of that memoir making process. But there's certainly so much complexity that comes with it.

DOUG FABRIZIO That's one of the things that's the most distinctive about the film--and I think all good documentaries do this--that is the sense of pacing, but also that you're willing to spend time. Like we see Jonas working through moments of just boredom or trying to figure out the piece when he just settles in. And I'm trying to imagine how much time it's taking to capture this moment and just the lulls of the life. And the fact that you do capture all of that means that you must have shot a lot of film to be able to get these these moments in there, and they're throughout the film, I have to say.

TAHRIA SHEATHER You know we would often roll for several hours and there would be maybe a couple of takes. We would roll constantly. And luckily we were shooting on a C-300, a camera that you have some flexibility with how long you can shoot, but also produces a beautiful image. And then we also shot a lot on iPhone. So many of the most resonant scenes in the film a shot on an iPhone. So I think we also just embrace the multiplicity of media, and threw away, I think, a lot of the the rules about how to mix media, because we were sort of celebrating that mosaic of family life and sort of embracing this sort of home movie aesthetic. So I think also that spontaneity of being able to just pull out your iPhone and shoot when something was happening and then being really opportunistic I think that is what sort of helped us create the footage that we were able to work with.

DOUG FABRIZIO There's this moment I wanted to ask you about which I think to me provides a good example of how this is. Irene you managed to play that role as director on one hand and then you know a member of the family on the other. And it happens in a part of the film--and it's one of the most kind of affecting parts of it--is the way you document what your father is going through. As he you put it, something was different with dad. And I don't wanna give too much away, but he comes to you at some point, and he says he wants to talk you about something. He's worried about his memory he's having a hard time balancing his checkbook and he's really concerned about it and he comes in. He's talking to you about it and so I'm guessing there's the part of you that's his daughter that's like okay let's talk about this. But then there's the part of you that's the filmmaker that's like we should maybe shoot this.

IRENE BRODSKY That was an extraordinarily lucky evening from a production standpoint because earlier that day Tahria and I were interviewing Jonas and his brother, and we were interviewing them in beanbags in the house's family room, so we had everything set up. Tahria was doing the interview and I was shooting. And so the camera equipment was already there. So, we were in the middle of an interview with with one of the boys, and my dad walked into the house and said, Irene can I talk to you for a minute? And right away I could see how distressed he was and I had no idea what he was going to talk to me about but I just said, Dad would you just sit in the chair, and let's talk about it while you're sitting in the chair.

So, there dad was and he gave us a number of really powerful interviews, most of which were actually completed by Tahria. But in the case of this particular interview, I interviewed him, and I was running the camera, and I was talking him at the same time and it was pretty crushing.

DOUG FABRIZIO As an artist, how did manage your needs to protect privacy and how did you be reverent about the crushing heartbreaking moment here, but also maintain your determination to capture this to convey this to show how beautiful and sad and profound it is? Do you know what I mean?

IRENE BRODSKY This sounds perhaps overly valiant, but I really believed in the greater good of the scene. I really could see that something was going to be coming out of this conversation that would never be repeated, that I couldn't say, So, Dad, remember how you were feeling yesterday? Let's talk about that. It just how he was feeling in that moment. And you know in the edit room we all agreed it wasn't just what he said, it was how he said it. And he was so anxious and so worried and his facial expressions... And so here's this man talking about losing a grip on his own mind, and behind him you see his 8-year-old grandson playing with a marble set and all through the interview you hear marbles going down the drain of this fancy marble kit that he has. And what are the chances that a kid would be playing with marbles that sort of proverbial symbol of our of our neurons in our brains, of things firing in our brain.

I think this film is about aging and evolving and you know metamorphosis and certainly we saw it with Beethoven in his thirties as he was losing his hearing. He was losing but gaining. And in the case of m father Paul, we see him start to lose something and we don't really know what it is. And then of course the film opens with Jonas losing you something: his hearing. So all of our characters are losing something over the course of the film.

DOUG FABRIZIO How did that change the way you that the film you intended to make? Did it in any way alter the way you were trying to portray deafness or hearing when all of a sudden your father wants to sit down and talk to you about this? Did it change the trajectory of where you were the film you wanted to make?

IRENE BRODSKY Well, I think Paul ultimately is in the film a lot more than I thought he would have been how he set out to make the film. And because he's in the film more with my mother there's a lot more gravity I think to the film around what it has meant to be deaf in the last 80 or 90 years, at least in American life. Deafness is such a function of wealth and what what your society can provide to you in terms of education, communication tools, all those things. So I don't mean to say this is what it might be like for someone who is growing up in India, for example, in the 40s and 50s. But it really allowed me to bring more of the deaf experience, because certainly, an eleven year old playing piano with cochlear implants is not what I would call the prototype of a deaf experience, but it's certainly not unusual anymore. There are plenty of deaf kids who are participating in music. And  if I could put on my advocate hat for a moment, which I generally never do as a filmmaker, but it's the mom in me, that if there's one thing that I'd love people to walk away from this film thinking, whether they're a parent or a teacher or someone working in the music field, is that there is no reason why a deaf child shouldn't be signing up for violin lessons or piano lessons any more than you'd sign them up for soccer you know.

So I think Paul just really gave us an opportunity to explore more what it means to be deaf from a historical perspective and for us to sort of interweave his loss with Beethoven's loss. Remember both of them were losing something but they didn't fully understand what they were losing. Beethoven did not really believe he was going deaf for a few years. He just thought he was having these issues and then he'd get his hearing back the next day, and then he would lose it again. If you look at his letters, he really was sort of waffling back and forth. And he wrote the Moonlight Sonata the year after he had a suicidal deluge of emotions, and wrote that his life, he wanted to be done with his life, if not for his music. And so I think that Moonlight Sonata is really particularly that first movement that we hear in the film is really Beethoven ascending as someone who knows now, finally, what he is losing, and that's his hearing. It's a one way street, and it's not going to get better.

IRENE BRODSKY Let's talk about Sally, your mother. Also important in the film, of course. And there's this scene where she talks about how all her life she she didn't really know why she was deaf. She figured it was just one of those things that had happened. But she talks about how seeing Jonas go through all of this is making her, and Paul, making them more curious about how this works. And so there's this great part where they go and meet with a genetic counselor, who explains that, look, there's a genetic component to all of this. And I wanted to talk about that. It's described to your mother and father that, basically what's going on here is it's, you know, genetics is like a sequence of letters, genetic letters, and one just kind of went out of order. As she puts it, there's a typo. And your mother doesn't like that idea. In fact she says, that's just the way the letters came out.

IRENE BRODSKY We came to realize, over the course of the year that we were filming, that our film was a meditation on a number of things. Deafness, sure, but also a meditation on mistakes. What is a mistake? And in medical terms, this geneticist was calling deafness a mistake. It's a fluke. It's a mutation. It's when the gene is not spelled out in the way it's meant to be spelled out that would offer you hearing. So, we also open the film with a very poignant moment, whether one realizes it at that point or not, where Jonas keeps playing the same quote-unquote mistake in the piece over and over again. And his pian teacher says, Jonas, your mistakes, if you play them enough, your mistakes become your music. Well, is that such a bad thing.? And what the teacher of course was getting at is the fact that she wanted Jonas to write it as the composer had intended because he's eleven and that's what a teacher typically would do for an 11-year-old student, right? But eventually aren't we taught, especially as Americans you know, to break the rules? And artists are encouraged to break the rules. But you can't break the rules if you don't know what the rules are, right?

So, I think in the case of this scene with the geneticist it really, as with so many things in documentary film, you turn the camera on and then divinity just kind of falls in your lap. The conversation they had it was as it was happening, I just thought, Oh my God, this is the theme of our film and it's happening, it's unfolding right in front of us. And Sally, as you said, Sally didn't like that. It's true she didn't like it, but she wasn't angry by it. She wasn't put off. She almost didn't get it. This woman's idea was so contrary to how she saw herself that she said, along with my dad, essentially what do you mean a typo? Wait. What? What's misspelled about it? And then at the end of the conversation she just asked her point blank, Well are you saying you would call this a mistake?

Geneticist We all have some defective genes.

Sally Would you call that typo a mistake?

Geneticist Yeah. You know the way they call, it the technical name, they call it a variant.

IRENE BRODSKY And the woman says, yeah. So, you know, sure they're hearing does not work. And the majority of human beings have hearing that is functional. So, in that sense she's not a complete anomaly, but she is, she has a rare condition, right? But it's something that we really wanted to think about because of course, Beethoven, we was a mistake. His DNA had a mistake in it, right? Whatever it was that made him deaf, even if it was from some kind of trauma, he may have had some genetic underlying condition that made him more susceptible to that. We just don't know.

DOUG FABRIZIO It just seems like such a relevant question in the age of technology and genomics. And I mean the question of how we deal with people who are living lives of genetic variation and whether we want to tidy that up and clean that up if we even can. So it seems so relevant.

IRENE BRODSKY And what might we lose when we tidy up.

DOUG FABRIZIO Yeah.

IRENE BRODSKY You know, some of us moms believe like don't clean up everything. They need some germs, they need to like make their system work a little harder. Well, I think in this case, working a little harder because one has a so-called disability, or working a little harder because there's some variation in their genetic makeup, sure that makes life harder, but don't we all believe that that shapes who we are?  And one of the things Tahria and I used to talk about all the time when we started making the film was how so often we think of the great artists of the world as, you know, that we have all these positive attributes, all these adjectives they have discipline, that they persevere, they are creative. We never say neurotic, abused as a child, grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. And yet all those things have very profound and often profoundly impactful and positive and life changing effects on people that inform the art that they bestow on all of us.

So you know it was like a constant reminder that what makes beauty and what makes great art--and of course Beethoven is the example we're talking about here--is that he was abused as a child. His father would you know keep him up till three in the morning, drunk, yelling at him to play piano because he knew he was more talented than he was. He would run away from his father. He was, you know, he was temperamental, and he as an adult he became even more temperamental. So we kind of like the value of mistakes in this film.

DOUG FABRIZIO Irene take me through a scene if you would. There's a moment where Jonas is working out something he can't quite get right on that Moonlight Sonata and out of a moment of frustration or inside I can't quite tell. He takes off his implants now would you just explain what is happening right at this moment.

IRENE BRODSKY It was the two of us in the room. It was late at night. It was one of those nights where he left his practicing till the very very very very last minute, and I'm sure many listeners have kids who would do the same, even if they're having a movie made about them. And typically, I would film him practicing every day and maybe two thirds of the time I'd have Tahria with me and the rest of the time I would just do it on my own. So, this was one of those nights where it was just the two of us and he was very frustrated. And we had talked in the past, the two of us, about what would it be like to play without his implants, but he'd never really tried it. And when I was filming, and he was just tired and crabby. So, he just took off his implants.

But then what happened, really, I wasn't prepared for it. He played through the whole piece. By the time he was done. I was crying.

DOUG FABRIZIO And this is the part where Jonas's teacher connects it to Beethoven.

Piano teacher He memorized sound. He knew when he looked at the page he could hear it. He looked at his art as the thing that would save him. His isolation gave him a greater sense of who he was, and what he heard in his own mind, and it just blocked out all the noise of the rest of the world. He only had his own noise. His deafness just gave him an isolation that might have given him the best ability to hear his own voice.

Jonas Did it sound good?

Irene Brodsky It was beautiful.

Jonas  Oh, that's weird.

DOUG FABRIZIO Beethoven's deafness, as you kind of explain in the film, gave him his ability to hear his own voice. And seemed like this is what's happening right now for Jonas that. But the thing that kept tripping him up in the piece wasn't getting the notes right, but making the piece his own finding his own voice and somehow it was the silence that helped him do that? Am I overthinking that or is that right?

IRENE BRODSKY I think you're thinking about it exactly right. I think he just wasn't always hearing the little mistakes that his teacher was nit picking on--and his teacher's a great teacher. But she would nit pick on little notes here and there that he might miss. And this way he was able to focus on the meta-components of the song, of this piece, right? Rhythm. Tempo. The emotion he feels while he is playing it and recalling it from memory, right? So, I think not hearing the actual notes allowed him to play with his whole body instead of just with this feedback loop of, I played the right note, now I'm going to play the next note now I'm going to play the next note, you know. In a way it's liberating. I think what just continues to baffle me about Beethoven is that unlike Jonas he didn't have the ability, when he felt like it, to put on an implant and say, oh right, OK, I'm confirming that's what that sounds like. Because, remember, Beethoven was not just creating sonatas in his deafness. He was creating symphonies. He was incorporating 20, 25 different instruments, and the timing of all of that. I mean, the symphonic nature of his mind is baffling to me. And you know I'm baffled by any composer who can compose that many elements, but imagine if you're continuing, as you move forward in your life, to rely on your memory of what something sounds like and it does really, I think for him a neuroscientific perspective, it begs the question, you know, is it just memory or is it actually hearing? Was Beethoven, kind of like people who lose their limbs, they're convinced they still have this phantom limb. It feels like it's there. And I wonder if he really did continue to hear the music. We don't quite understand what that might be like. But, you know it just gives me so much pause. 

DOUG FABRIZIO You say in the film that Jonas took the leap into silence. Spent more and more time with his grandfather. Had he finally discovered a kind of balance here, do you think?

IRENE BRODSKY Well, maybe it was a balance. Maybe it was a superpower. Earlier in the film, you know, he realizes his grandfather, if he doesn't want to hear something, he just turns off his implant. Well, that never really occurred to Jonas that much. And I can tell you, now he's two years older, and he turns off his implant all the time. It's a way for him to have power over his own body. It's a way for him to shut out the world. It's also a way for him to relax and all the power to him. I mean, he has that tool, so, he's learning how to use it. And I do think it helps in the musical arena too because he can experience the music however he's in the mood to experience it.

Irene Brodsky. She directed the documentary film Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements. We're going to be screening it next Wednesday night at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in downtown Salt Lake City. This is part of our partnership with the Utah Film Center. Closed captioning and listening devices are going to be available for the show. Irene Brodsky is joining us for a Q and A after the film. And you can get details about all of that as well as a transcript of the show on our website, RadioWest.org. RadioWest is a production of KUER News. The program produced by Benjamin bombard and Tim Slover. I'm Doug Fabrizio