Filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky grew up with deaf parents. One of her previous films documented her parents getting cochlear implants. Taylor Brodsky explores her son’s deafness, deaf culture and the idea of finding one’s creative voice in her new film, “Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements.”
Q&A With Irene Taylor Brodsky
Dave Miller: I’m Dave Miller. This is “Think Out Loud.”
Deafness runs in Irene Taylor Brodsky’s family, but like many genetic conditions, it doesn’t run in a straight line. So both of her parents are deaf, but she can hear. And when her first son was born he could hear as well. But then right around the time that he was learning how to talk, he began to lose his hearing. Taylor Brodsky is a documentary filmmaker who is used to telling her family’s stories.
In 2007, she released the award-winning film “Here and Now.” It focused on her parents’ deafness and their decisions to get cochlear implants late in life. Now she has a new documentary about her parents and her son and about family loss and love. It’s called “Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements.” It opens tomorrow night at Portland’s Cinema 21. Irene Taylor Brodsky, welcome back to “Think Out Loud.”
Irene Taylor Brodsky: Thanks so much. It’s great to be here, virtually via New York.
DM: Yeah, it’s great to have you. Even if you’re 3,000 miles away. Given the family history that I just mentioned, how focused were you on your son Jonas’s hearing when he was born?
ITB: Well, we were focused on it for the first day or so before he had a newborn hearing screening and then they gave us a result that he could hear. So we kind of put that out of our mind. I think as the daughter of deaf parents, I always knew it would be a possibility. Deafness does statistically skip a generation, more than it’s passed down to the next generation. But I didn’t think too much about it until he was 18 months old and he wasn’t developing language typically. So that’s what told us maybe something was not typical in his development.
DM: And then eventually, that that got worse. You did more testing and then eventually you got the diagnosis that he was going to be going completely deaf. What went through your mind when you got that definitive news?
ITB: Well, you know, we actually never got definitive news. We just knew each time we went to the audiologist up at OHSU every month it was getting worse and worse. It was like trying to get sound through a window, and the window was steadily closing and we didn’t know how fast it would happen. But we did see it coming. So it really was more of an emotionally definitive decision to just say, OK, we have as much information as we need to determine what we’re going to do next. And so about a year and a half into all that testing, we determined he would be deaf enough, if you will, that we wanted him to benefit from implant technology.
DM: Did you have conversations with your parents, his grandparents about that? I should say that, as we learned from your previous familial documentary, they had conflicted feelings about getting cochlear implants later in life. And that those are relatively common among the deaf community, mixed feelings about these groundbreaking technologies. Did you talk to them about implants?
ITB: Absolutely. I mean, they’re my parents, and this was my son’s grandmother and grandfather. But I should tell you that they never tried to influence our decision about what to do for Jonas. Of course as his parents, you know, we chose what he ate for breakfast each day and we also had to make this decision for him. My parents got their cochlear implants when they were 65. And if there’s one thing that we learn from that process, both as a filmmaker, I learned it, and just as the daughter of these two deaf people is that sound is really only valuable to us if it means something. So if you don’t have sound for 65 years and you don’t develop all those emotional connections with the sound of wind, your favorite song, a genre of music that you listened to when you were 12, sound takes on a whole other timbre in your life. And it’s not necessarily one that’s soothing or positive or fun. So for my parents, it’s not that they had mixed feelings about the implant technology or even about the decision to have an implant, it’s that they realized a year or so into getting these implants so late in their life that the sound wasn’t as meaningful as they thought it would be. But they were the first ones to tell us that Jonas was young and because he was young, his brain was young and the way he would respond to this would be different.
DM: Did you — to go back to the metaphor you had of the window closing — did you feel like there was also a kind of a closing window in terms of the most useful version of these implants? In other words, that the earlier you provided them to your son, the bigger the benefit he would get?
ITB: Yeah, absolutely. I think neurologically that’s just a fact. An audiologist said to me once, if you implant him early, the brain will do the rest. The longer you wait, the more he’s going to have to learn how to hear. Otherwise his brain is just going to do what brains do, and it’s going to learn how to communicate and access sound. So we were in this waiting game where we were trying to understand how quickly he was losing his hearing and also understanding that, that that window or that door of opportunity for what I would call neurotypical hearing development was going to quickly close.
DM: What did happen after he got the implants in terms of, of his relationship in those early years — 4, 5, 6, 7 — to sound?
ITB: At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it was like he was thirsty and we finally gave him a drink. You know, this is a kid. Remember he understood in that little intellect of his, at 3 years old, he understood that there is sound and sound has meaning in sound, communicate something, language, what’s behind you, what’s to the left of you. But he was losing it so rapidly that when we finally gave him the implant and we turned it on a month later, it was like, ‘Ah, here I am again.’ Now I can put myself in time and space. And of course he didn’t say that to us. He was very young, but he picked up language very quickly, spoken language. And it was about that time that he developed this passionate love for the piano and he just was noodling on the piano all the time. So by the time he was 5, about a year into his implant, we started him with lessons. And that’s really what was the impetus to making this sequel to “Here and Now” called “Moonlight Sonata.”
DM: After a Beethoven piano sonata, and that eventually your son Jonas really wanted to play. Where do you think his desire for piano in particular came from?
ITB: Well, I think that’s a great question, Dave. I think many of us are drawn to music more than others. I think music is part of this kind of rhythmic, almost like gravity. It’s just a force within us. And in Jonas’s case, he was very drawn to the piano and maybe, you know, the fact that each note on the piano, each half-step had a very distinct corresponding key for the note. So it’s not like violin where you’re finding the note right with your ear. So he knew if he looked at the page and he was playing a C that that was a C, you know, he didn’t have to attenuate his pitch performance with that, right? … It’s also just a fun instrument to play when you’re a little kid. And when we realized how much he liked it, we saved every penny we had and we bought a used um, Yamaha from the Lewis & Clark piano sale that they sell from their music department and we bought a baby grand. And man, when we got that, it was like he just took off cause he was so excited to play this giant instrument. And by then he was a couple of years into playing.
DM: Well, let’s have a listen to a scene from your movie, which is a couple of years after that. This is, um, with him and his tough but kind piano teacher, Colleen Connolly. And this is when he is working on Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”
Film clip: (piano being played by Jonas)
Connolly: That’s wrong, Jonas. It’s a D sharp right there. You’re playing a D natural. Right here. I want you to stop. This is one those measures we talked about.
Jonas: Oh my god …
Connolly: Let me get a red pencil.
Jonas: I was doing so good!
Connolly: No, you’re not doing well if you’re playing a wrong note.
Jonas: It was — that was my first mistake …
DM: One of the questions I had — you have a lot of scenes of your son, taking piano lessons, with, as I said, a tough but kind piano teacher and I wasn’t sure watching it, how much of his, his stubbornness or frustration in terms of practicing and being corrected, was a result of being deaf and how much is just because he’s a preteen and they can be sort of a difficult version of the human species. Do you have an answer?
ITB: Sure, yeah. You know, I think Jonas has always been one of Colleen Connolly’s more challenging students, because he did always just sort of pushed back a little bit and she pushed right back with him. And I think that’s what a good teacher does. I think people look at her teaching style in this film and it’s either something they really sign onto or they think that maybe it’s not right to be so particular about playing the so-called wrong note. You know, there is much room for improvisation. And I think over the course of the film, to the extent that this is a coming of age story about an 11-year-old deaf boy learning how to play one of history’s most famous sonatas written by a composer as he went deaf.
As much as the film is about that, it’s also about him finding his own music, mistakes and all. Right? And, and I think that’s a metaphor for many of us, whether we’ve taken piano lessons or not, right? We are the sum of our parts that are both persevering and heroic and intelligent. But we’re also a product of our environment. We might be disabled by our circumstances, by the body we’re born into. Maybe we have a mental illness. I mean, look at how many of the heroic artists who we put on a pedestal suffered from mental illness or suffered from life circumstances that were beyond their control. So I think that’s a big theme of the film. So part of the reason I go back to these lessons so much in the film is really for us to all reflect on how we’re all perfecting our own lives. And even if we’re not striving for perfect, we’re striving to sort of accept what our own music is and letting it be a summary of all of our best and perhaps less favorable qualities.
DM: Hmm. Some of the most moving, to me, scenes in the movie are with your oldest son and your parents and seeing the various ways in which in which they navigate their shared experience of all three of them being deaf, but also really big differences, in that he — because of his cochlear implants and getting them at such an early age — he has so much more access to the hearing world and to music and to … and just to sound. The love between those three people is super-obvious in the movie. But I’m wondering if your parents, also in that love, have also experienced jealousy for the access he has to sound?
ITB: I think wistfulness might be a more accurate description of what they’ve told me at times they feel. Keep in mind, I mean this is their grandson and they love him and they want the world for him. So just because they didn’t get the world in the same way he’s accessing it doesn’t mean they don’t want it for him, certainly. I think one of the most powerful, well for me personally, thinking about what deafness is and the contribution of the deaf experience to the world we live in, there’s one scene in the film that’s just an everyday scene of Jonas playing cards with his grandparents. And in that scene, this is not about Sally and Paul wishing they could hear; it’s about them telling Jonas how in a way his hearing is disabling him from being a better communicator.
“You have to look at us when you talk. You have to sign more clearly than that. You can’t be sloppy. You have to stop writing while I’m talking to you and give me your attention.”
They’re teaching him the basic 101 etiquette of deaf communication, which is very visual and it really gives your attention to the person you’re looking at. And I think that’s something we’re guilty of not doing anymore. I think as hearing people, we multitask. We text while we’re listening, while we’re talking. I’m guilty of doing it with my own kids, right?
So you know, there’s another scene in the film where Mom and Dad are talking with a geneticist about the basis of their deafness and they’re really pressing back on what I would call a medical model of deafness when they announced to Sally, “Well, here’s your mutation. Here is what’s wrong with you.” And my mother’s basic response here is, “Well, is it what’s wrong with me or is it just the way I came out?”
And so, there are parts of the film, including, in case this is lost on anybody, Beethoven himself, I mean the most memorable and famous and recreated pieces of music that Beethoven wrote were written after he began going deaf or was completely deaf. He famously was completely deaf when he debuted his Ninth Symphony. And I think that you cannot really imagine until you think about a deaf person’s experience today, how valuable the deafness was to Beethoven for his music.
And while I don’t think if you read his letters, he enjoyed many parts of his deafness, aspects of it. I do think that when he realized he was on a one-way street, and this is my opinion, by the way, this is just my summary of reading his notes and letters, that he really took the ball and ran with it. And he made the music he did not in spite of his deafness, but because of his deafness.
DM: Irene Taylor Brodsky, thanks very much for joining us. And congratulations on this movie.
ITB: Thank you so much
DM: Irene Taylor Brodsky. Her new documentary “Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements” opens tomorrow night at Portland’s Cinema 21.
Editor’s note: The film’s subtitle was incorrectly referenced on air as “Deafness in Three Acts.” This transcript reflects the correct name.