Positively Beautiful Music: Fred Hersch’s My Coma Dreams
After the pain of AIDS-related dementia, an 8-week coma, and extensive physical therapy, celebrated jazz pianist Fred Hersch created the moving performance piece, My Coma Dreams.
Considered by many music lovers to be the finest jazz pianist of his generation, just a few years ago, Hersch was facing a grave prognosis due to severe AIDS complications.
After hospital stays and what he described as “two months of being completely psychotic and paranoid,” Hersch seemed to be on the mend when he was sidelined by a bout of pneumonia. It didn’t look good. He had septic shock and his kidneys had shut down.
“Hersch essentially spent the next two months in a coma, and when he came out he found himself unable to talk, eat, or walk,” Winston Gieseke writes in HIV Plus magazine. “The future of his career was uncertain. Doctors weren’t sure he’d ever be able to play the piano again.”
But Hersch resolved to continue making music.
“My hands went through lots of phases of being swollen, being stiff, being weak, being painful,” he says, “but I just fully assumed I was going to get back on the horse.”
Over the next several months of extensive rehabilitation, Hersch was plagued by vivide memories and visions from his coma dreams. Even though he rarely remembered his nightly dreams, he found himself unable to shake these ones.
“They were very specific: colors, smells, textures, sounds, people in my life. I thought, I should do some kind of music piece with this.”
Working with writer and director Herschel Garfein, who’s best known for his operatic adaptation of Elmer Gantry, Hersch turned the memories into My Coma Dreams.
“It’s what they call a ‘festival piece,’” Hersch says of the 11 instrumentalists and actor-singer who narrates the show using the composer’s own words. “There’s too much music for to be classified as a theater piece, and too much theater for it to be a musical piece.”
“It’s not a jazz piece per se,” Hersch volunteers. Fans of his jazz work may be surprised.
“It’s a mix of musical languages. Stylistically, I did not limit myself to what I was going to write and in what style. I just let the dreams take me where they wanted to go.”
As for his own amazing recovery, Hersch says a large contributor to his good health is his partner, Scott Morgan. With a viral load that has been undetectable for more than three years, Hersch hopes the music will inspire hope in other HIV-positive people.
“When I was diagnosed, I was not yet 30,” he says, “and I never thought I’d be 40. Now I’m 55, and I’m thinking 60 is a no-brainer.”
Read more about Hersch’s amazing journey in the original article on HIVPlusMag.com.