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'Moonlight Sonata' Explores: Sound, Silence, Closeness Of Generations


"Moonlight Sonata" is a film that explores the power of sound, silence and the closeness of generations, told in three movements, inspired by the piece of music that Beethoven wrote just as he began to go deaf. "Moonlight Sonata" premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival and is now in theaters. It opens with Jonas Brodsky at the age of 11, the son of Irene Taylor Brodsky, the filmmaker. Jonas is deaf, like his grandparents Paul and Sally Taylor, and about to have a cochlear implant, as his grandparents did a few years before. And Jonas is learning how to play Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata."

We're joined from the studios of OPB in Portland by Irene Taylor Brodsky, her mother Sally Taylor and her son Jonas Brodsky, who is now 13 years old. Thank you all very much for being with us.



SIMON: And Julie Gebron is standing by to interpret for us. Thank you very much.

JULIE GEBRON: Thank you.

SIMON: Jonas, what did it mean to you to learn Beethoven's sonata?

JONAS: I thought it was a very inspiring piece, and he definitely put what was left of him into that piece because I definitely know he was losing one of the most important things for him, which was sound. And so he really just put everything into it.

SIMON: Irene Taylor Brodsky, what are some of the generational differences you notice between your son and your mother, well, I guess during the entire process of the film, but certainly when it came to this piece of music?

BRODSKY: Well, my parents are two deaf people of the 20th century, mostly. They were born in the 1930s. Jonas is very much what I would call a 21st century deaf kid. He had access to sound around the time he was 4 and pretty quickly after that wanted to start to play music. My mother was the daughter of a professional pianist, and she used to sit under her piano and feel the vibrations of her playing when she was growing up as a little girl in the '40s. But she didn't really have access to sound like the way Jonas does.

SIMON: Yeah. Sally Taylor can you help us understand how cochlear implants changed your life?

SALLY TAYLOR: I grew up hearing nothing. But I had a hearing aid when I was a young mother, so I could hear my babies cry. Then when I got the implant, I was hearing birds singing and water waves that I did not hear before.

SIMON: Julie, did you want to step in here?

GEBRON: It really didn't change my life very much. I grew up deaf, so I was very used to not hearing. For a while when I was a young mother, I did use a hearing aid so that I would have assistance being able to hear my babies crying. But otherwise, I didn't find it to be very helpful. When I did get the cochlear implant, I became more aware of different sounds in the environment that were around me, like birds singing, the sound of water in a creek.

SIMON: There is some controversy among people who are deaf about cochlear implants. I won't attempt to approximate it, but I wonder, for example, Sally, how have you felt about that?

GEBRON: Lately, I've been noticing more deaf people are becoming more accepting of cochlear implants, even some people who I think were initially against them are starting to get it, I think because they're realizing that we're able to still maintain and keep deaf culture. You know, we had to remind them that a long time ago, people felt the same way about hearing aids. There is still controversy, especially related to children, and babies in particular, being implanted. But I personally have seen what can happen when you do give a child a cochlear implant and how much it can help them fit into the world. And at the same time, they have the choice to fit in with deaf culture as well.

SIMON: Jonas, you sometimes seem to take it off, right?

JONAS: Yes. I think it's definitely a way for me to have a little bit of peace and quiet, especially around my brothers.

SIMON: (Laughter).

JONAS: Yeah. And you can kind of just let your mind, like, might focus on other things but, like, not on sound.

SIMON: You sometimes play the piano without your implants, don't you?

JONAS: Yeah.

SIMON: What do you enjoy about that?

JONAS: Like, you really can't hear anything, so you can really just focus on the piano and focus on your emotions and what you're putting into your piece.

SIMON: Sally, what have you tried to teach Jonas about deafness?

GEBRON: I've tried to teach him and make him aware that he needs to be watching people during his communication with them. And I've also tried to encourage him to sign more clearly, especially when he's fingerspelling his name. He needs to be more alert and use his eyes more to be able to look around and observe things the way deaf people do.

SIMON: Irene, is it a particular blessing to see your son and your parents so close, sharing this together?

BRODSKY: It's like they're a silver lining for one another, actually. Mom's talking about how deafness has really been an asset for her, and I think that that's an important value that Jonas gets to see every day. For my parents, their deafness at times put them at a disadvantage or made them get overlooked for jobs, for respect, whatever it may be. And I know that my parents have told me so many times that to see Jonas grow up now with smartphones, with the potential for hearing assistance if he wants it - implants, hearing aids, what it may be - just a broader tolerance and understanding of the deaf experience and the contribution of deaf people, they feel happy knowing that this is the direction that they see the world is headed. It's kinder. It has more opportunities for him.

SIMON: Must be awfully proud of your family, Irene.

BRODSKY: I'm sitting here in a studio in Portland, Ore., about to cry.


SIMON: I don't think you're the only one.

"Moonlight Sonata" is now in theaters. It will stream later this year on HBO. The film is by Irene Taylor Brodsky. She joined us with her son Jonas Brodsky, 13 years old, and mother Sally Taylor. Julie Gebron has been our interpreter. Thank you so much.

BRODSKY: Thank you so much, Scott.

JONAS: Thank you.

GEBRON: I hope to meet you in person someday. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.