Music of the Mind

by Joel Deutsch

A grateful visitor discovers that Disney Hall need not be seen clearly to be appreciated.

I was elated when Walt Disney Concert Hall finally debuted to architectural and acoustical acclaim last October. In my youth, I’d soaked up the symphonic repertoire in Cleveland’s elegant Severance Hall during the orchestra’s celebrated time under the direction of George Szell. Later, I’d heard many memorable Los Angeles Philharmonic programs from whichever section of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion I could afford. So I couldn’t have been happier that Frank Gehry’s new civic landmark was welcoming its first audiences and finding its voice.

But I could only imagine what the hall looked like, inside and out. My hereditary retinal degeneration had left the world looking like Janet Leigh’s murky view through the shower curtain in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” At my first concert, I would have to make do with the indistinct shards of imagery my decimated retinas and stalwart visual cortex could patch together. If only someone could guide me, I thought, someone articulate, generous and patient. Hoping for the best, I called the Los Angeles Music Center.

And so it was that on a warm weekday morning before the Oct. 1 opening gala I found my way to the box office to wait for Carolyn Van Brunt, the Music Center’s Americans with Disabilities Act compliance officer and director of guest services.

“I’m no architectural expert,” she cautioned me as we began our tour of the building’s exterior. I assured her that it didn’t matter. On the Web, with the help of my screen reader program, I’d pored over articles describing the hall’s idiosyncratic asymmetries, its billowing curves, I imagined, making it look something like an extraterrestrial Spanish galleon about to sail over Bunker Hill. All I needed was for her to help me make sense of the place.

She led me to a nearby wall. “Now look,” she said. “Can you see where it changes?”

I peered and noticed a two-tone effect a few feet up from the courtyard floor.

“Go ahead,” she said. “Touch.”

My fingers encountered stone below. That was the travertine base, Carolyn said, the same kind of rock, quarried in Italy, that clad the Getty Center, which I saw more clearly when the cultural center opened a few years before. Its roughly cut surfaces were riddled with fossilized creatures.

“Now slide your hand upward,” Carolyn said, and my fingers brushed across a thin lateral boundary onto a vertical terrain of sheer steel. “It’s flat like that until way up above,” she explained, pointing overhead beyond my limited visual range. “And then it curves outward.”

Yes, I thought. Yes. This is what those articles had described.

Up, down and around Carolyn led me, making vivid everything she could: a passageway between two upthrust steel walls, one matte-surfaced, the other so polished that I thought my glimpsed reflection was someone else. An amphitheater, trees and flowering shrubs, a rose-shaped fountain made from shards of Delft china whose water spilled into a gigantic, subdivided bowl of open petals. The area that had to be veiled with dark mesh to stop reflecting sunlight into condos across the street.

Back on the ground floor, Toni Conrado, Disney Hall tour supervisor, took me around the interior. He showed me grand stairways, mezzanines bathed in light from lofty skylights and a ballroom-cum-dance floor with its own sound engineering booth. Then he brought me into the concert hall itself.

People like to imagine that the blind develop extraordinary acuity in their unimpaired senses. It comforts us to believe that if fate pulls a black hood over our luckless heads, our fingertips will come alive with new nerve endings, our sense of smell become as keen as a bloodhound’s, our ears pick up sound in the frequency range used by bats.

But the reality is that we simply start paying more attention to the sensory input. Those bereft of their eyesight attune themselves intently to touch, smell and hearing because they must, and the wiring of their brains develops accordingly, but only with conscious effort and dogged practice. As far as I know, there are no blind martial arts wizards able to dispatch their opponents with sightless lethal grace. A rose I hold to my nostrils today, half-visible, smells no sweeter than it would have smelled 10 years ago, clearly seen. And I have not acquired the power to overhear whispered conversations, or discern every one of the harmonic overtones when my cellist friend Paul Cohen draws his bow across a single string.

That said, coming into the auditorium, I wondered if someone else would feel as I did – as if I had entered an old-fashioned music shop and found myself enveloped by the aromas of rosewood and spruce and the faint, luxurious fragrance of open instrument cases lined with velvet plush. I told Toni.

“It’s the materials,” he explained. “Except for the oak flooring, they tried to use kinds of wood that musical instruments are made from.” No wonder the first interior wall I’d passed had reminded me of my acoustic guitar.

We had the place entirely to ourselves. I climbed a few rows up and tried out a seat. I felt cradled in a natural enclosure, both awed and comforted, the way I have felt standing amid the towering sequoias of a Northern California redwood grove.

I imagined how the distinctly different ensembles for a Mozart concerto or a Mahler symphony might sound, spare and transparent for the Mozart, ample and full-textured for the Mahler. Toni described the auditorium’s angles, its seating arrangements, its lighting. Then he led me to the foot of the stage, and we ascended past the pew-like benches behind it to where the gigantic organ pipes rise toward the ceiling. I could follow their shafts only a few feet over my head, but I had read descriptions of the odd, crooked tangle they made high above, and I could feel how massive and stout they were where they began. I thought of Bach, of course, and of Fats Waller too.

Afterward, my mind still echoing with multisensory reverberations of Delft china, light and shadow, steel and stone and wood, I savored lunch in the cafe, exhausted and happy. When you carry the white, red-tipped cane of the blind, you never know what will happen. Sometimes well-meaning people grab you by the arm and drag you across intersections like a naughty child, sometimes they tell you how nice it is that people like you and Stevie Wonder and the late Ray Charles always have music to fall back on.

And then, sometimes, they give you back the disappearing world, or at least a beautiful bit of it.
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Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times, October 17, 2004
Reprinted by permission of the author

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