Jazz pianist Fred Hersch not only survived AIDS-related dementia and an eight-week coma, he turned the experience into a work of art
Fred Hersch, who has performed on over 100 recordings and is considered by many music lovers to be the finest jazz pianist of his generation, has managed to turn life’s lemons into some glorious lemonade with his ambitious new multimedia work, My Coma Dreams.
Three years ago, Hersch was fighting for his life following severe AIDS complications. He spent 10 days in early 2008 in the hospital, followed by what he calls “two months of being completely psychotic and paranoid.” By March things were looking up — he was eating regularly and gaining weight back. Then came an almost-too-late diagnosis of pneumonia. By the time Hersch was admitted to the hospital, 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. The future of his career was uncertain. Doctors weren’t sure he’d ever be able to play the piano again, but Hersch’s determination to resume playing and composing music was unshakable.
“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.”
While rehabilitating, he kept having vivid memories from his coma. Even though Hersch says he doesn’t normally remember dreams, the sleep narratives were never far from his mind during his months of rigorous physical therapy. “They were very specific: colors, smells, textures, sounds, people in my life. I thought, I should do some kind of music piece with this.”
Hersch committed the memories to paper and enlisted the help of a collaborator — writer and director Herschel Garfein, who’s best known for his operatic adaptation of Elmer Gantry. Together they created My Coma Dreams, a performance piece that features 11 instrumentalists and what Hersch calls some “very intense animation and video imagery” that delves into the composer’s sleep fantasies while exploring the traumatic reality that brought them on.
“It’s what they call a ‘festival piece,’ ” Hersch says. “There’s too much music for to be classified as a theater piece, and too much theater for it to be a musical piece.” An actor-singer grounds the show in reality by charting Hersch’s illness through the composer’s own words and the words of those close to him while the music and visuals express the dreams. All of the various pieces intersect in unpredictable ways. Some of the dreams are terrifying; others are surreal or lyrical.
Fans of Hersch will be surprised by the expansive sound of My Coma Dreams. “It’s not a jazz piece per se,” he says. “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.”
Hersch attributes much of his amazing recovery — he says he’s now able to play the piano “as well as or better than ever” — to his partner, Scott Morgan.
With My Coma Dreams scheduled to premiere May 7 at Montclair State University in New Jersey, and a viral load that is currently undetectable, Fred’s wish is that his quarter-century experience as an AIDS survivor can bring people hope.
“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.”
Originally published in HIV Plus magazine, May/June 2011