Joanne Thompson Hankamer

Along with a fundraiser for Charles Prewitt’s New Prague Concert Society, The Austin Global Orchestra performed Sunday, November 4th at the open-air Teatro Luis Amphitheater at Jennifer’s Gardens on Shoal Creek in Austin.  The event was hosted by Fred Myers and his wife Jennifer Staub Myers.

Conductor/violinist Roberto Riggio led Charles Prewitt on cello, Joe England on flute, Joshua Thomson on sax, Charlie Lockwood and Sari Andoni on ouds, Pepe Gaytan playing cajon and daff, Ziyad Doany playing darabouka and riq, and Ethan John Vlah playing Indian tablas, Udu drum, darabouka, and cajon.  Vocalists Julie Slim-Nassif and Bia Ali each joined the orchestra to perform a solo.

Because I was helping Fred and Jennifer, I missed most of the first set that included Charles Prewitt and Victoria Wolff-Zavallos’ cello duet of "Sonata in C Major" by Luigi Boccherini.  I took my seat next to two friends as The Austin Global Orchestra began to perform their renditions of Arabic, Indian, and original music.


I could tell that there was a tremendous balance in the sound.  Although I am not very knowledgeable about music, my friend Marian Schwartz, with whom I was sitting, is.  I asked her why this music seemed so wonderful—what were they doing on that stage that I couldn’t comprehend but yet could appreciate the outcome?  She said that the music was gorgeous in tone and that the sounds were effortlessly interwoven.  She gave a lot of credit to Roberto Riggio for both his skill on the violin as well as for his respectful conducting and the quality of the other musicians.


Until recently, if you had asked me how music sounds, I would have said that I don’t know because I don’t listen to music much: I sold my piano and my electric keyboard years ago, stored away most of my CDs and all of my records, and rarely turn on the radio.  Until recently, stringed instrument didn’t vibrate enough for me to hear and wind instruments overruled sounds, muting others.   Music had a muddy quality—messy and incomprehensible.  Melody lines weren’t guaranteed paramount importance, for strong chording might decimate and ruin my ability to hear them.


I had been losing my hearing for decades, but two years ago had a reprieve when I got a cochlear device implanted on the right side of my skull.  Now I am a cyborg, or a cybernetic organism which relies on an electromechanical device to carry out one of the senses.  Having only about 10 percent hearing in my left ear—for which hearing aids no longer help—and no hearing conduction occurring through my right ear, I rely on a computer chip that is installed in my brain to hear. 


Sound is received through a small microphone attached to a headpiece placed in front of my right ear that links to an external computer called the processor.  Operated by a battery, the microphone picks up sound and relays it to the external processor.  A wire with a magnet on the opposite end protrudes from the processor.  When I place the magnet to the back of my head, it cozies up to its internal mate buried between my scalp and my skull.The external processor analyzes the sound and sends it through the headpiece and its accompanying parts and they transmit the sound to the computer inside my head.  The internal computer, pocketed against my skull, has tendrils attached directly to the cochlea inside my brain.  Although I can hear once again, music most often is too complex for my cochlear device to interpret. 


Knowing that I was there and didn’t expect to enjoy the music much, the obvious question is:  Why was I there?  The simple answer is that I miss music.  The more complex answer is that the otolaryngologist who implanted the cochlear device two years ago told me that I’d continue to have improvement for years as the brain strives for normalcy. A few months ago I decided that it was time to begin listening to music again in the hope that eventually, my brain will understand. I’d been trying to regain some of its beauty but not with great success.  Music still sounded like the equivalent of looking into a funny mirror and expecting to see a realistic reflection. 


But at this concert, it happened.


When Riggio pointed at Thomson playing sax and I could see his instrument and watch how he played it, my brain essentially said, “now I remember what a saxophone sounds like, move on,” and then Riggio would highlight the oud players, and my brain modified itself to understand their sounds.  He pointed to Ethan Vlah bending over his Udu drum and I learned a sound I’d never heard before.  As he worked his way through the cello and flute and more exotic instruments (for me), my brain kept pace.And then there were the two singers.  One didn’t need to understand Egyptian to recognize that Julie Slim-Nassif was singing an eloquent lamentation of unrequited love.  Bia Ali beautifully vocalized during another number that was less plaintive but just as intriguing.


The synapses in my brain were adjusting, conquering areas dormant for years.  This is known as neural plasticity, or cortical re-mapping.  My brain responded to the stimuli at a rapid pace, so that by the end of the second set, I heard the music far differently than I had during the first set.  The purity of the orchestra’s sounds, enhanced by Riggio pointing at each performer when his instrument was highlighted, allowed my brain to reconfigure:  I heard their music as I had not heard music in at least twenty-five years.  During that second set, the synapses in my brain had an effusion of activity.  All sounds were as a normal hearing person heard them.  The instrumentation never sounded muddy.  It flowed so beautifully that I cried in delight.


Why hadn’t this happened earlier in the two years since the implantation?  Perhaps it would have if I’d been going regularly to their concerts.  Whatever the reason, their concert was my personal Fantasia experience, for when the conductor pointed to an instrument, the musician and my brain both responded in unfathomable ways.


Encore, encore, Austin Global Orchestra. I’ll be back; for your exquisite music not only figuratively blew my mind, it literally did so, too.