This year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven, the German composer who created some of the world’s most beloved music. It’s an opportunity to celebrate his genius, a gift manifested in timeless symphonies and other works, including the Moonlight Sonata.
That piece, composed as Beethoven was going deaf, holds special meaning for filmmaker Irene Taylor and her son Jonas. At age 11 Jonas set himself the goal of playing the Moonlight Sonata’s first movement—a challenge for any budding pianist but especially for Jonas, who, like Beethoven, had his own journey with deafness. Taylor explores her son’s relationship with sound, silence and Beethoven’s opus in the HBO documentary Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements.
“I basically asked Jonas if I could just start documenting his effort to learn this piece. At the beginning he was doing it by himself because his teacher wouldn’t teach him,” Taylor recalls. “She said it was too hard. [But] he just kept going. And then that made me a little more determined to film him.”
Jonas, whose wild hair bears some resemblance to Beethoven’s vigorous chevelure, gravitated to the Moonlight Sonata before knowing much about what he had in common with the composer.
“I don’t even think he knew Beethoven was deaf,” Taylor comments. “I think Jonas just really loved the music. I think he was responding to it just musician to musician, really.”
Though not hearing impaired herself, Taylor was born to deaf parents. They grew up in a time before cochlear implant technology offered deaf people the possibility of experiencing the sensation of sound. In her 2007 feature film, Hear and Now, the director documented her parents’ decision, in their mid-60s, to get cochlear implants, a procedure some in the deaf community find objectionable because to them it implies deafness is a condition to be corrected.
When Jonas was born, Taylor little suspected he might also face deafness.
“You might think I would have expected this, and yet it came as a total surprise and it really blindsided me,” Taylor admits. “The reason is because Jonas had shown that he had some hearing…[But] when he was a year and a half [old], he wasn’t really developing words. My doctor suggested we take him to an audiologist. And I’ll tell you, that kid sat on my lap, and they were playing tones through headphones that were so loud I could hear them outside of the headphones, with him sitting on my lap. And I just watched him staring off into space, seeing no sign of hearing it.”
By age four Jonas had lost all hearing. His parents made the decision to get him cochlear implants.
“I really didn’t see giving him an implant as a question of ‘if.’ It was really a matter of ‘when,’” Taylor says. “I knew that if I gave him the ability to exercise his auditory cortex at a young age he would always have the lifelong choice to use that asset or not to use it. If you don’t give someone an implant until later in life their brain doesn’t develop a typical auditory response.”
The implants helped Jonas pursue his interest in piano and, in turn, as Taylor notes in voiceover in the documentary, “All that music was helping Jonas navigate sound.”
Jonas encountered inevitable struggles as he tried to master the Moonlight Sonata. A breakthrough came when he disconnected his implants and learned to feel the music instead of simply hearing it. In that respect, he was much like Beethoven, who it is said could feel and in a sense “see” music later in life as his hearing progressively disappeared.
“That’s somewhat what the film is about, really, how Jonas learned to use this tool of high-tech hearing,” Taylor observes, “but how he also learned that his native state as a deaf person is just as valuable, if not more valuable, to him as a musician.”
Taylor’s parents, Paul and Sally Taylor, are important figures in Moonlight Sonata. Paul, an engineer who developed the TTY telecommunications system for the deaf, ponders what it would have meant if cochlear implants had been available to him as a child. And he wonders if at some point in the future, perhaps through gene editing technology, deafness will be eliminated from the human family.
In an evocative scene, Sally visits a genetic counselor to learn the cause of her own deafness. The expert explains she has a “typo” in her genes, a freighted word that suggests an error, a mistake. Sally objects to this characterization—“It’s not really a typo. It is what it is,” she says—but it’s clear the geneticist doesn’t really understand that perspective.
“I was in that room filming that scene. And I remember cringing behind the camera and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this woman, her choice of words was so shortsighted,” Taylor remembers. “I certainly don’t think of deafness as an abnormality. I do think deafness can be disabling. In an aural, verbal world that we live in, I think it can certainly be disabling. But life is not just a summary of all of our verbal communication. It’s so many other things.”
HBO is submitting Moonlight Sonata for Emmy consideration in the prestigious category of Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking.
“It’s a peer reviewed award, and I feel very honored to be able to be considered for this,” Taylor tells Deadline. “Yeah, I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled.”
As for Jonas, he is taking the attention generated by the film in stride.
“Jonas is now a full-blown teenager, and he hardly mentions it,” Taylor comments. “When the film came out I think he was a little bit modest, because he’s not someone who likes to be center of the room, center stage…He got to take a lot of time off from school to travel with me with the film…A lot of festivals have school programs and so Jonas had an opportunity to speak to other teenagers. And that was really, I think, the most rewarding for him.”