Desmond O’Neill: Ageing with Keith Jarrett

Desmond O'NeillThe last time I heard Keith Jarrett was just over thirty years ago, a distraction from the tensions of final med with some fellow medical students. Even the choir balcony tickets were eye wateringly expensive, the compact and elegant National Concert Hall in Dublin barely half full on a damp November night, and the experience was unforgettable.

I had first come across his music when staying in a Militante Frauenwohngemeinschaft (militant women’s living collective, a long story for another day) while on my electives in Hamburg. His Köln Concert (the largest selling solo piano album in history) was firmly embedded in the cultural landscape, his persona as Serious Artist at one with earnestness of German culture and the single-mindedness of my flatmates. It even pierced my Irish cultural fecklessness in a way that surprised me.

And so I found myself waiting with bated breath for this daunting persona, legendary for not brooking distraction of any sort from his audience. He had been known to distribute cough sweets to his audience, and on one occasion to lead a group cough to clear the collective throat.

The concert was one of almost scary intensity, a journey through a single minded vision of gently evolving melody, pile driving chords, and his trademark grunts and tuneless singing. What emotion there was remained masked and unyielding until his encore, a melting and totally riveting exploration of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Thirty years later, the same hall had sold out within hours, the pre-concert buzz was electric, the crowd encompassing a remarkable spectrum of ages. But this was not the only difference: as a geriatrician, I could not help my growing fascination at the change in Keith Jarrett. Gone was the taciturn and austere artist, replaced by a more casual and relaxed figure in a soft green shirt, trading gentle jokes with his audience between pieces.

The music was also different: shorter pieces—although still substantial—more rounded, economical, and with a restrained warmth that disarmed and conquered in a deceptively effortless fashion. The mastery and maturity of ageing can be hard concepts to transmit to those outside of gerontology—but to those of who had been to both concerts, it was unmistakable.

His final encore illuminated the slipperiness of the concept that you cannot step in the same river twice—surely some landmarks remain the same? And so it was with Somewhere Over the Rainbow three decades later on the same stage, the music the same but not the same, thirty years telescoping and yet expanding, a reminder that we constantly revisit and renew our life experiences, reframing and recontextualizing landmark emotions.

It was only afterwards that I realized that my gerontological focus on ageing and maturity had been entirely directed outwards, on Keith Jarrett and his artistry. This in turn led me to reflecting on how little attention we pay in gerontology to our own ageing, dealing with those who age in an objectified manner. The ever subtle Atul Gawande gave us a little nudge in this direction in his How We Age Now, using a retired geriatrician as a central trope of his analysis of contemporary ageing.

But the eye cannot turn inwards on itself, and I struggled to find that which I might share from this second encounter with Keith Jarrett without resorting to Crabtree’s bludgeon*. Perhaps one aspect is the release from the intensity and unconscious intolerance of early adulthood, whose angular edges can be a spark for action and innovation but which are often uncomfortable for those around us.

This change resonates with the wisdom that old men dream dreams and young men see visions. As one astute observer has noted, a vision contains the idea of synthesising elements that are apparently contradictory. A dream, on the other hand, gives us a world in which contradictory things can co-exist. Instead of synthesising and finding a way out of contradiction by resolution, dreams find a world in which contradiction can exist without conflict.

In addition, with ageing we grow to trust that the deep core of what we are trying to communicate to others has a logic of its own, and this security can disarm others and ourselves in equal measure.

But it was Jarrett’s music in the final analysis which relayed most forcefully to me what ageing adds to our lives, bearing out Mendelssohn’s aphorism that it is not that music is too imprecise for words, but rather that it is too precise.

Desmond O’Neill is a consultant physician in geriatric and stroke medicine, and Chair of the National Centre for Arts and Health, Dublin.

*No set of mutually inconsistent observations can exist for which some human intellect cannot conceive a coherent explanation, however complicated.