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The Dream Music of a Nightmare Time

Few things of meaning come across as more meaningless than another person’s dreams. Everything that makes a dream fascinating to the dreamer—the confusion, the illogic, the mercurialness of time, place, and identity—seems like little more than random weirdness when the Id involved is not our own. As a means for making art, moreover, dream-telling is treacherous for all but the most artful of tellers. I recall myself having written short stories that ended with the cheat of an explanation that all that I had described was really just a dream. I learned to do better at the advice of Mrs. Loftis, my third-grade teacher.

Still, in a meaningful sense, all music is dream art—expressions of interior life rendered as abstractions. Innumerable composers have drawn explicitly and fruitfully from dreams, too. Schumann, Stravinsky, and Wagner all composed pieces based on melodies they had encountered in dreams, as if they had been hearing works by other composers. In a moment now frozen in pop-culture legend, Paul McCartney once heard a tune in his sleep, woke up, and transcribed it on the guitar at the breakfast table, setting the tune to a phrase appropriate to the occasion, “Scrambled Eggs.”

Fred Hersch, the jazz composer and pianist who wrote a fine setting of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” several years ago, has composed an expansive, ambitious new long-form work that escapes the treachery of dream-telling. About three years ago, Hersch contracted a virulent strain of pneumonia and, under toxic shock, was put into a drug-induced coma that he did not recover from for two months. While comatose, Hersch’s life was one of dreams and nightmares, several of which remained vivid after he regained consciousness. From those memories, Hersch and the librettist Hershel Garfein constructed “My Coma Dreams,” an 80-minute work for eleven-piece orchestra and voice, with spoken-word segments derived from Garfein’s interviews with Hersch, his partner Scott Morgan, and one of Hersch’s doctors. In its premiere in Montclair, New Jersey, this past weekend, the piece featured the actor and singer Michael Winther, who sang and played all three roles with understated grace, and Hersch himself on piano, playing beautifully, as always. I found the piece unshakable—serious, profoundly moving, and sometimes disturbing, a work of dream art as elegant as Stravinsky’s “Petit Concert” and as memorable as “Yesterday.”

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