I once attended a concert featuring classical music from popular movies. The film clips were shown on the screen without music. The members of the audience were surprised to realize a silent great white shark was not so menacing, or that they weren’t immediately moved to tears by a clip of Schindler’s List without the sad wailing of violins. When the clips were replayed with the live orchestra performing, the importance of both sight and sound to our sensory experience was quite obvious and moving. While scientists provide a complicated yet plausible explanation, I prefer to marvel at the inexplicable and beautiful relationship of the mind and heart to art and life.
My fascination with this subject was recently piqued while watching a documentary film called “Hello, I Am David,” about pianist David Helfgott, the subject of the Oscar winning film Shine. After experiencing a nervous breakdown in his 20’s, Helfgott spent 11 years in an institution where he was deprived of music. Only after he was reunited with a piano did his recovery begin. Although he still suffers behavioral effects from his past, his intense love for music and people is unavoidable and undeniable. Throughout the film he constantly wanders off to ask people their name and where they’re from in his almost unintelligible, rapid speech. Then he hugs them, often not wanting to let them go. Moments later the same man, who at times seems completely disconnected from reality, sits at a piano, playing some of the most beautiful music ever performed, leading those who listen to depart from reality as well.
I had a similar emotional experience recently as I photographed the sweet soul above on the streets of Milan. As with David Helfgott, I had no way of knowing what was going through her mind as we interacted. We had no common audible language, but her tenderness and sincerity were obvious. When I approached her, she smiled and reached out to hold my hand. I sat with her for a while as she spoke Italian and I answered in English, both somehow understanding that we were connecting in a way that transcended unneeded words.
My experience with her in Milan and the life and music of Helfgott remind me of the richness and depth that come from someone’s soul when, and possibly even more so, words cannot suffice. These two unrelated events fed my emotional appetite in ways that words cannot describe. They inspire me to find ways to keep words from getting in the way as I wander a world filled with strangers whose inner beauty is waiting to be shared.