Sunday, November 27, 2005

Thelonius Monk & Asperger's Syndrome

For oncetoday's entry will be on a muscician, Thelonius Monk.

This great artist has been in the news lately - recently someone acting on rumors found a recording of a Carnegie Hall concert given by the Thelonious Monk Quartet and John Coltrane. This new recording is of great importance as John Coltrane spent 6 pivotal months with Thelonious in 1957. In that time he kicked heroin and "found God". Until this discovery there were only a hand full of songs recorded by this partnership. I've been listening to this phenomenal recording for 2 weeks straight, it's fantastic.

Monk's music is incredible. Paraphrasing Wynton Marsalis, he has the spirit of a wise guru trapped inside the mind of a five year old. When I've made my parents listen to his stuff, they exclaimed that his songs sounded like Sesame Street on LSD.

His unorthodox music, fully of seemingly simple yet complex and melodies, and his personality (Monk seems oblivious to the world - totaly foccused on his music) are all reminiscent of Asperger's syndrome. This disease has been in the news of late. Asperger's is a form of Autism, but the afflicted are usually quite gifted especially when it comes to recognizing and analyzing patterns. I've writen in the past on how Asperger's and other forms of Autism may be caused by increased prenatal exposure to testosterone. In a recent article, WIRED claimed that it was the Nerd Syndrome:
Kathryn Stewart, director of the Orion Academy, a high school for high-functioning kids in Moraga, California, calls Asperger's syndrome "the engineers' disorder." Bill Gates is regularly diagnosed in the press: His single-minded focus on technical minutiae, rocking motions, and flat tone of voice are all suggestive of an adult with some trace of the disorder. Dov's father told me that his friends in the Valley say many of their coworkers "could be diagnosed with ODD - they're odd." In Microserfs, novelist Douglas Coupland observes, "I think all tech people are slightly autistic."


These days, the autistic fascinations with technology, ordered systems, visual modes of thinking, and subversive creativity have plenty of outlets. There's even a cheeky Asperger's term for the rest of us - NTs, "neurotypicals." Many children on the spectrum become obsessed with VCRs, Pokemon, and computer games, working the joysticks until blisters appear on their fingers. (In the diagnostic lexicon, this kind of relentless behavior is called "perseveration.") Even when playing alongside someone their own age, however, autistic kids tend to play separately. Echoing Asperger, the director of the clinic in San Jose where I met Nick, Michelle Garcia Winner, suggests that "Pokemon must have been invented by a team of Japanese engineers with Asperger." Attwood writes that computers "are an ideal interest for a person with Asperger's syndrome ... they are logical, consistent, and not prone to moods."

And other great muscicians, such as Glenn Gould, have been diagnossed with this syndrome. To hear about Asperger's on NPR's Infinite Mind click here.