I found a narrative and that narrative became a song

 

Zoë Keating is a cellist and composer who put her music career on hold when her husband Jeff was diagnosed with stage IV non-smokers lung cancer. After Jeff passed away, it took Zoë time to start creating music again, but when she did, it became her lifeline. Zoë spoke about her experiences at TEDMED 2017, and you can watch her Talk, and hear her play the song “Possible,” here.


Four years ago my world exploded and disintegrated: my husband Jeff was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he died 8 months later and I became an only parent.

I spent a long time in a shell-shocked-limbo that I can barely remember (if I was weird to you during that time, I apologize!) and then I feel like I’ve been searching for the blown apart fragments of my life and trying to put them back together with tape but there are huge pieces missing and…what is the shape supposed to be again? I don’t know yet. It’s a process. I’m a process.

For the most part, I’ve been ok with that. But yeah, sometimes there is nagging voice in my head impatient for me to “bounce back”, “be resilient”, “overcome”, etc etc etc. It berates me to “get on with it”—whatever “it” is—so that then I can do the normal things that a successful artist does, like release a new album, something that seemed incredibly daunting in my new life.

So last year the folks at TEDMED invited me to speak. I thought about all the things I wanted to talk about. I could talk about the patient experience of health care. Or maybe I could talk about how I used to suffer from paralyzing stage fright until I discovered live looping—by recording short phrases of the cello and playing on top of them, I made a virtual cello orchestra to keep me company onstage and then I wasn’t afraid. I didn’t want to talk publicly about Jeff’s illness and death and what came after. I didn’t want to be defined by a story that was raw and painful and still bleeding.

I tried to write my talk about something else but as much as I didn’t want to be defined by loss, the biggest thing in my life was the gaping wound where my husband was. It would be insincere for me to give a talk about anything else.

So I started to write. I wrote iteratively in bits and pieces and as I wrote, a clearing appeared, and there was new music in it. As what I wanted to say crystalized into words, so did the music. I ended up making a talk and a song in parallel. In distilling my story, I found a narrative and that narrative became a song.

The act of finishing a single song made it seem possible for me to make another one, which I did after I gave the talk. And then I made another…

Zoë Keating, by Chase Jarvis

One theme running through all my music is the feeling of getting outside of things to get a bigger vista. I’m often looking for the musical equivalent of a bird’s eye view. It has been hard to get that kind of perspective of my life for the last few years. And frankly, it’s hard to imagine making something big, like an album, when you’ve lost your confidence, which I certainly had.

After I gave my talk, I could see that this process of looking at my personal story from afar, having an insight and then iterating on it, was very similar to how I make music. When I combine loops of cello together the resulting sounds and textures hint at new musical patterns to explore. When I wrote about what happened, thought about what I’d written and then refined it, the very process of doing that suggested new ways for me to think about it.

If I was to give another talk today, I might explore an idea I heard about during a subsequent performance that I had with Jad Abumrad, the founder and co-host of “Radiolab”. I was making live music for a talk he gave on the origins of the show in which he mentioned the idea of the “adjacent possible”, a term coined by the theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman.

Bear with me for a second. Roughly, Kauffman’s theory as I understand it is that biological systems are able to transform into complex systems through incremental changes. Life didn’t start out complicated with something like a flying squirrel. First there were a bunch of carbon atoms, then those atoms combined to make molecules, then proteins, and then proteins made cells possible. Each step along the way created the possibility for the next step to occur, the adjacent possible. Kauffman’s idea has since been applied to social sciences, technology and creativity, describing how new insights can be generated by combining already existing ideas. The adjacent possible are the things made possible by what you are doing right now.

So for me, maybe the act of distilling my story at TEDMED created an adjacent possible for me, one where I’m able to make music again.

Here’s me talking about how music helped me think about life, love and loss, followed by a live performance of a new song called “Possible”. I’ll be releasing the studio version as part of a three-song EP on June 1.

Thank you, TEDMED.

The Healing Power of Art

Art exposes us to new ideas and people we may never otherwise meet, allowing us to have unique emotional experiences and to feel connected to one another. It promotes dialogue and creates a platform for us to share experiences and ideas. Research shows that the simple act of engaging with art is connected to positive health outcomes, such as reduced stress and anxiety.

TEDMED has long celebrated this connection between art and health. For example, in 2015, creative art therapist Melissa Walker took our stage to share how she engages patients with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder through making masks, giving service members a non-threatening platform to unravel their stories and unlock their emotions. And, last year, artist and patient advocate Ted Meyer shared his story and showcased his 18-year project Scarred for Life which chronicles the trauma and courage of people who have lived through accidents and health crises.

This year at TEDMED, we will hear from two artists who use their artistic talents to communicate stories about themselves and their communities. By sharing personal experiences of loss and healing, and depicting the emotional experiences of entire communities, these two artists are using are promoting well-being through their unique artistic outlets.

For cellist Zoë Keating, music has always been a means of risk-taking and personal expression. With her husband’s encouragement, Zoë gained the confidence to conquer intense stage fright and to pursue a professional career in music after spending several years in the tech world as an information architect. When her husband was diagnosed with stage IV non-smoker’s lung cancer, Zoë’s story pivoted and she took on another role—that of the caregiver. She paused her career to care for her husband and their young son, documenting their family’s experience navigating the complicated US health care system and their insurance battles on her music blog. After her husband died, Zoë coped and communicated through her music.

Zoë describes her music as a lifeline—a way for her to rebuild her world after loss and move forward. Scientific research has reinforced the healing power of music: researchers have found that music is intertwined with our experiences, creating musical and emotional memories which we can unlock to promote healing and recovery. For example, patients with brain injuries may be unable to talk, but are able to use singing as a starting point—propelling them on the path to regaining speech. Zoë remains an advocate for patients like her husband and continues to perform original songs influenced by her experiences and emotions. Each piece of music she performs is a story that brings her closer to her audiences than ever before.

Like Zoë, Artist Jennifer Chenoweth has experienced personal trauma and found healing through her art. Growing up, Jennifer faced physical and emotional challenges, and art provided her with an outlet and a community that she says helped lead her on a path to wholeness. Jennifer describes art as the “door to stories,” and through her XYZ Atlas project, she uses art as a way to explore how experiences create a sense of belonging and why we become emotionally attached to certain places.

Jennifer Chenoweth’s Hedonic map of Austin

By correlating psychologist Robert Plutchik’s wheel of emotions to a color wheel and using hundreds of anonymous responses to a survey about where individual emotional experiences have occurred, Jennifer created a “hedonic map” of her hometown Austin, Texas. The National Endowment for the Arts uses similar techniques to provide healing experiences for military veterans. The idea behind this program is that creative platforms help both patients and providers gain a more coherent understanding of the patient’s underlying status, making “invisible wounds” more visible and readily addressed. Jennifer sees emotion as a surrogate for health status. Her maps allow her to visually demonstrate both the disparities and commonalities of individuals in the community, providing lessons of compassion and connectedness.

TEDMED has always championed the role of art in health and its potential to promote well-being, whether by simply using exposure to uplifting art to expedite the healing of patients in the hospital or by creating a new platform to evaluate our communities and promote dialogue. These Speakers are making the invisible visible, and facilitating new ways for us to embrace our connectedness.