Fred Hersch, “My Coma Dreams”

People who know about Fred Hersch tend to know about the pianist’s evocative, eloquent compositions and improvisations, which regularly blur the lines between jazz and other musical genres. They may know that the 55 year-old musician has been HIV-positive since the mid-1980s and has weathered many highs and lows along the way. And they might even intuit that he’s a very private person who generally prefers to put whatever he has to say into music rather than words. But few of his fans and followers could have anticipated the new approach Hersch took to distill his experience of – and painstaking recovery from – a two month long, medically-induced coma a few years ago.

On May 7, 2011, part of The Graying of AIDS team had the distinct pleasure of sitting in the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University for the world premiere of “My Coma Dreams,” an ambitious new multimedia collaboration commissioned by Peak Performances @ Montclair. This compelling new work pieces together vivid musical, verbal and visual approximations of what Hersch remembers from this time with reflections from his life partner, Scott Morgan, and (to a lesser extent) one of the doctors who helped Hersch survive that summer back in 2008, drawing on creative contributions from not only Hersch and the 10 jazz musicians who join him on stage but also a Broadway performer, an opera and theater director, an animator/graphic designer, a lighting designer, and a video systems designer.

By integrating solo piano musings and swingin’ ensemble pieces with spoken and sung text, animated projections, and partially staged interludes, Hersch introduces the audience to the sometimes terrifying, sometimes hilarious, often moving snapshots he brought back from his long, strange trip to some inner plane. As we jump between his memories and those of his partner and his doctor, we follow their respective takes on the evolution of Hersch’s condition. We are, for example, introduced to their dramatically different experiences of time:  an unbearably long two months for Morgan feels more like a matter of hours or days for Hersch. We also glean insights into their parallel, distinctly personal “hells.” For Morgan, that’s watching the love of his life struggle to survive and slowly wasting  away, and constantly massaging Hersch’s hands and arms in an attempt to counteract the rapid atrophying of his muscles.  For a comatose Hersch, hell looks and feels a lot like an unnecessarily stressful gig accompanying a mediocre lounge singer with overactive jazz hands at a diner in the middle of some nowhere in his mind.

“My Coma Dreams” also introduces the viewer to what a coma is and how it differs from what you see in television and movies, and takes time out to honor St. Vincent de Paul (the French saint dedicated to serving the poor); St. Vincent’s namesake hospital in downtown Manhattan, which provided exceptional care to countless New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS (including Hersch) before it was closed in 2010; and Thelonious Monk, a long-time source of musical inspiration and occasional co-star in Hersch’s wacky dreamworld adventures.

At the end of this multimedia odyssey, Winther (as Hersch) describes the extraordinary effort it takes to recover the use of his body while working with rehab specialists. As he struggles to walk again, he becomes aware of someone else in the gym desperately trying to regain control of his limbs. Our narrator reenacts the moment when Hersch props himself up on the parallel bars to catch his breath and sneak a peek at his fellow patient; as he does, Hersch rises from the piano to face Winther, and the stage falls silent as our narrator realizes that the wild-haired stranger sharing the gym is his own reflection in a mirror. We sense the sadness and wonder that Hersch feels as he takes it all in and registers the incredible work that lies ahead of him. At the same time we take comfort in the hour plus that has preceded this moment, living proof that all that hard work paid off. Hersch is walking just fine now; his hands work again, and beautifully; and his mind is back, creating new, original work that weaves together some of the many places he has been, including some of those he barely escaped.

As with most creative experiments, some moments in “Coma Dreams” feel more successful than others (at times the musical-theater inflected voice of the undeniably talented actor/singer Michael Winther seems a somewhat unlikely fit with the tone of the music that surrounds it). But these minor limitations don’t negate the ultimate power of this work. The opportunity to experience, in some small way, what it felt like to be Hersch (and Morgan) as they navigated this difficult period – the fear of not only loss of life, but loss of love, identity, and the ability to work and communicate in a meaningful way – underscores the unique power of the arts to somehow illuminate what might otherwise be almost impossible to communicate through simple facts or more traditionally journalistic storytelling.

In the coming days we will be launching a second blog on this website, “Artists Responding to Aging and to HIV/AIDS.” We hope you will take some time to explore some of the work that will be highlighted on this new blog in the coming months, recommended by individuals living with the virus and/or working in the HIV/AIDS and aging services, research, and advocacy communities and the arts community, and eventually, we hope, by some of you. Check back soon to experience it for yourself.

To learn more about Fred Hersch, read the amazing profile that ran in the New York Times last year. To learn more about the evolution of “My Coma Dreams” in particular, check out this blog by “the fred hersch film project,” a documentary film in production about the composer and pianist.