It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.

Mark Twain

A well prepared impromptu speech, an exact estimate, small crowds, the only choice, and something seriously funny – have in common that they are all oxymorons. We know what these phrases mean. Yet, they are contradictions in themselves. Something well prepared is not impromptu, an estimate isn’t exact, crowds aren’t small, a choice always offers options, and whatever is serious ain’t funny.

Music Technology is another oxymoron. Technology is tangible reality, music is creative and intangible imagination.

Yet, last week, a visitor to An Saol who teaches and researches Music Technology opened my eyes and my mind, and made me realise that sometimes things that seem to be opposites, can work together to produce radical change.

Pádraig (and others like him) are deprived (amongst other things) of a huge amount of sensory input. Worse: many clinicians working with severe brain injury don’t even realise this. Never mind realise the enormity of it.

Anybody with some common sense understands the difference between preparing, cooking, eating, and sharing food – and being fed some predigested nutrient liquid through a tube into the stomach. (As an aside: on one occasion a speech and language therapist and a dietitian made a combined effort to convince me of the opposite.)

But it’s more complicated than that. Because it is routine for us, we rarely realise what it means to be able to touch. Things and people. To transmit and understand information through touch.

Eminent scientists like Martin Grunwald have explained that we cannot survive without touch. Touching (haptics) is more important than seeing, hearing, smelling or tasting. Because through haptics we feel our body, our physical existence.

Now, what does it mean if I cannot move? Cannot touch soap and feel warm water on my hands when I wash them (because I cannot and others don’t do it with me); can’t feel the food that I am about to eat (because it’s injected into my stomach)? What does it mean if I spend most of my time on a special air mattress ‘floating in space’, designed to reduce ‘touch’? If I am ‘floating in space’ while being transferred in a hoist, instead of feeling my body’s weight on my feet while I transfer from bed into my chair?

On top of all this: what does it mean for my being, if I am deprived of all agency? If people perceive me of not being able to understand or communicate – so they take decisions for me without me; if I’m perceived to be ‘dead weight’, not being able to act on anything, do anything that would have any effect on anybody or anything?

It would be hard to find meaning in life.

Yet, this is what many people with a severe brain injury face.

Now imagine, what if there was …

  • a sensor that measured the position of your hand, and raising and lowering it would change the pitch of a note played by an instrument or the vibration rate of a cushion you’re sitting on?
  • a ring around your finger that converted tapping, bending and stretching movements into sound or a haptic effect?
  • a heart rate monitor that produced rhythms that can be not only heard but felt based on the beating of your heart?
  • a strap around your foot that produced the sound and vibrations of a bass drum in time with your foot-tapping?

And these are just some example of how music technology can help people with limited abilities to feel the effect of their actions on the world surrounding them – actions that anybody with a heart beat can control?

Remember the way how Pádraig controlled how a clarinet player plaid his instrument just using his breath?

Last week, Pádraig had a tiny visitor who really made him happy and smile – big time.

He got, after months of waiting, a new custom-made seat and back support for his wheelchair.

And I had some fun at the barber – who in COVID times decided to accept cash only, and in our National Car Testing Centre to get the annual NCT for Pádraig’s car – where they prepare for Brexit.

Although many people have tried, the world and its people cannot be understood. Even time, past, presence and future, are not what they used to be as Gumbrecht, who taught me literature in Bochum and recently retired from Stanford, explains quite eloquently, in German only unfortunately.

Crowds can be small, choices present one option only, fun can be serious, and music technology be creative – even creating meaning and purpose for those largely deprived of it.

And what looks impromptu is often quite well prepared, as Twain reminded us many years ago.