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Thursday, November 3, 2016

Andrew Bird and Atul Gawande on Music and Medicine

Dr. Gawande, my sister, and me at Dunkin' Donuts--jk, The New Yorker Festival!
My sister Lucy and I half-run half-skip to Gramercy Theatre in East-side downtown NYC. I check my watch as we exit the 23rd St 6 train subway—"Lucy, we're making good time: 6:55 pm!" Just 5 min before the show...

As we enter the there's this suspiciously festive red glow which reminds me of a BBC Proms moment in London's Royal Albert Hall, except it's The New Yorker Festival and I'm equally nerding out to see Dr. Atul Gawande and musician Andrew Bird in conversation. "Whoa, Lucy...I was kind of expecting a lecture hall or something..." Are you serious

Are you serious—no question mark—is the new album of Andrew Bird's. Andrew's music makes me think of the intimacy of Zoe Keating's one-woman looping cello orchestra with the energy of Joy Kills Sorrow's folksie-stringy-plucky drive. A classically-trained "true goth," as Dr. Gawande describes, Andrew casually remarks, "well, there's a reason why conservatories are called conservatories." A rebel, he wields his violin like a ukulele-turned-fiddle-turned-harmonica as he whips out what The New York Times describes his "inner operatic folkie." Lucy turns to me and whispers, "he makes me want to play the violin."

We listen as "Puma" fills the theater:

'Cause it gives rise to the rumor she's a girl and not a puma
And that light that shines is not a pearl, it's just a tumor
But the doctors, they told me to stay away
Due to flying neutrinos and the gamma rays, oh

"What is cancer?" Andrew ponders aloud, first as an aside; then, his eyes light up as it hits him—he's talking to a surgeon..."What IS cancer???" And in childlike curiosity, "I mean, does cancer have a reason for being there?" It was one of my favorite moments of the evening, as Dr. Gawande explains in true physician-educator style the mutations that give rise to cancer, and that the cells are trying to survive...

"Ah! So they have a will..." Andrew replies, somewhat-satisfied.

"I write about things I don't understand," says Andrew. Cancer. Fake palindromes. He also writes about "a lot of things we're not talking about as people," and sometimes his approach is from a "scientific angle that shows us what we're made of."

An audience member asks Andrew about the social responsibility of the artist. He says, "when it speaks from the heart, do it." But when the responsibility comes from external pressures, from "duty to speak out," it "usually doesn't go well."

I think music is one of the best mediums in which external motivations can start to dissolve, because art allows us to so naturally connect and start the feel that intrinsic understanding rather than the prescribed duty; the sense of what I get when I read a piece of fiction, like George Eliot's Middlemarch rather than one of those "develop kindness" books like David Brooks' The Road to Character (Rebecca Mead further makes the point).

After the talk, Lucy and I discuss over pizza and chocolate mousse cake (a delicious combination, by the way): how does the social responsibility of the artist compare to that of the physician? It's a question for us all as we ponder the boundaries of our professions, but in medicine in particular, there is the toxic notion that as long as we treat the biological disease, we're doing our job. But Dr. Gawande and many know otherwise. Gawande writes in Being Mortal,
We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive...

The chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.
I think tonight's conversation is about a sense of will. Why are we alive? It's about creating our own meaning, of crafting our own song, of breaking from classical traditions to create something richer—looping and whistling along. And the will of connecting with another, of seeing how our experiences are inherent in another's—whether between physician and musician, or any number of communities and identities. It's a testament to the power of listening and relating through music.

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