MOSHE FISHER-ROZENBERG CREATES HEALING THROUGH MUSIC
HOW THE ABSOLUTELY FREE DRUMMER’S EVOLVING CREATIVITY LED HIM TO MUSIC THERAPY
By: Leslie Ken Chu | Photo by: Colin Medley
“In terms of the music industry, I definitely have had to rejig my relationship with that whole pursuit of success. I’ve kind of abandoned that.”
Whether drumming with experimental rock trio Absolutely Free, making ambient electronic music as Memory Pearl, DJing, remixing, or dabbling in criticism, Moshe Fisher-Rozenberg’s relationship with music is constantly evolving. “I go a little crazy if I feel that I’m not going forward in certain ways,” he tells me over Zoom. This curiosity and restlessness has led him to his current vocation, music therapy.
Fisher-Rozenberg is in the second and final year of his master’s degree in music therapy at Wilfrid Laurier University. “I’ve been touched by so many people who have had difficulties navigating their mental health,” he says, before adding that he has faced similar obstacles. “Music therapy is not just for addressing mental health,” he points out, “but that was the draw for me… I wanted to deepen that relationship [with music], and music therapy seemed to be a good direction.”
Music therapy can treat an array of cognitive, communicative, and motor symptoms related to dementia, schizophrenia, autism, depression, aphasia, Parkinson’s, and more. Exercises like clapping hands, tapping feet, and singing can improve breathing, heart rate, and blood flow. “It’s pretty all-encompassing,” Fisher-Rozenberg says. “The important thing is it’s not a one-size-fits-all. You have your patient, together you create goals, and then the music therapist will approach the music therapy sessions in a way that is specific for those goals.”
Prior to his studies, Fisher-Rozenberg volunteered for two years at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. There, he worked with individuals with schizophrenia. “My intention was to help them feel a little bit of control. They’re so powerless in so many ways, so to create an atmosphere where they can feel empowered was really important, and then also to create that sense of community, because it’s a fine line between feeling you’re at a hospital and feeling that you’re maybe being held prisoner.” To achieve this, he led interactive group sessions that mostly involved group drumming, but also individual singing and poetry. “Depending on the approach, a lot of verbal processing can really help to digest some of the things that come up in the music.”
Although he used music therapy techniques in his volunteer work, Fisher-Rozenberg clarifies that his practice was informal. “I was kind of just feeling it out and experimenting, whereas now I’m reading a lot of literature and learning a lot of official approaches.” Without certification, one cannot call their practice music therapy. “They’re not going to get as deep,” he says, “but they can still use songwriting or music listening, for instance, with patients.”
To this point, he notes that we use music therapeutically every day. “Even just going dancing can manipulate your emotions, or it can give you energy.” But what’s the difference between casual conversation and psychotherapy, he asks? “Speaking with a psychotherapist is going to be very different, because it’s going to be guided; there’s going to be clinical goals associated with those conversations. And there’s a potential for things to really deepen and for unconscious material to come to the surface in a way that’s not going to happen necessarily if you’re chatting with a friend over a beer. It might not have that same safety.”
That lack of distinction between formal and informal practice isn’t the only misconception about music therapy. “The whole fuckin’ field is built upon misconceptions,” Fisher-Rozenberg replies without missing a beat when I ask for examples. “Some of the misconceptions that are bothersome would be that music therapy is showing up with a guitar and playing tunes, like entertaining. If you Google music therapy, probably the first thing that comes up is somebody with a big smile on their face playing acoustic guitar to a group of elderly people or a group of children,” he presumes accurately. But he states firmly: “It’s not about entertainment at all. It’s about collaborative and interactive experiences.”
“I do group sessions, and my biggest fear is that I will be expected to be an entertainer. But in those instances, you come up with group goals.” Referring back to his work with individuals with schizophrenia, who can feel particularly isolated in a long-term care facility, he explains his approach: “I’m gonna be trying to create engagement and relationships between them so they can feel a sense of home in an atmosphere where they do not feel that they’re at home… So me just standing in front of them and playing Elvis is not gonna do that. All that’s gonna do is entertain them for five minutes.”
Fisher-Rozenberg also takes exception to the conflation of music therapy and the wellness industry. “A lot of people claim that they can heal you with vibey music. I think maybe they call it sound therapy. But from what I know, that’s a little rogue, because so far in my studies, I haven’t read much about using drone music to heal a person.” He does acknowledge that every person responds differently to music. “The cliché, corny relaxation music is not gonna work for everybody. It may be relaxing for one person, but for another, it can be extremely aggravating,” he says, reiterating his point that one size does not fit all. “For music to actually help a person, it has to be their preferred music. For one person to relax, yeah, okay, maybe [it’s] the sounds of the rainforest and some harp, like you’d hear at a spa. For another person maybe it’s Black Sabbath, which is counter-intuitive.”
Misconceptions exist among music therapists, too. Although he’s relatively new to the field, he’s observed a spectrum of thought. “On the left side is expressive therapies, so that’s your catharsis, like getting out emotions and things like that. And then on the right side is brain stuff, like, what does music actually do to your brain? How do you use music to rehabilitate somebody’s speech? How do you use music to rehabilitate somebody’s fine motor skills? And those two sides don’t seem to get along very well.” Fisher-Rozenberg straddles the middle. “If you’re a therapist, you gotta be able to hold both [views]. That’s the whole beauty of therapy: it allows people to hold two totally disparate thoughts or feelings at the same time and then integrate them. So as therapists, we should be doing that.”
Music therapists work out of various settings. In private practice, patients go to the therapist. Contracted therapists move between facilities, like clinics, hospitals, and group homes. In-house therapists are stationed in one facility. Fisher-Rozenberg is currently limited to Zoom sessions from his home, but in a way, they’ve expanded the possibilities of his practice. “It’s actually good for me because I have a lot of electronic leanings. I like to use lots of electronic music technologies, and I can integrate all of those. I don’t know if you can see behind me” – he points to a collection of consoles in his background – “there’s some big, old synths. I can’t bring those with me, but now I’m able to use them.”
He’s also been using electronic technology to explore his possibilities as a musician. Over the last two years, Fisher-Rozenberg worked on his debut solo album as Memory Pearl, Music for 7 Paintings. Its seven electronic instrumentals cascade between calming, luminous ambience, with sweeping sonic immersions and cosmic journeys built upon percolating, comet-tailed synths. The compositions incite the sort of astral projection that might occur when gazing at the Abstract Expressionist paintings each track is named after. These references include Jackson Pollock (Number 28, 1950), Lee Krasner (Untitled, 1948), Helen Frankenthaler (Natural Answer, 1976; Red and Brown Scene, 1961), Joan Mitchell (Sunflower, 1969), Franz Kline (Cupola, 1958-1960), and Robert Ryman (Untitled #17, 1958).
“It was very personal,” Fisher-Rozenberg says of Music for 7 Paintings. “There’s some music therapy theory that would apply to my process.” He began by observing a painting, then journaling and translating that writing into compositions. “By going from one modality to another to another, a lot of unconscious material surfaced. And that’s one way that people use music therapy: they go from drawing to writing to singing to talking, and jumping between all those different modalities helps them to uncover this top secret unconscious information about themselves that helps them to be a more integrated individual.”
The album’s electronic aesthetic was straightforward, though, derived from music he enjoyed, like Laurie Spiegel, Tim Hecker, Wolfgang Voigt, and obvious minimalist touchstones Brian Eno and Steve Reich. “It’s so basic,” he laughs. “I cannot help but be influenced by the music I love, and especially as this is my first substantial work as a solo artist, I felt I needed to honour and represent this aesthetic that I’ve had brewing for so long… This was like a freedom where I was really trying to honour this vibe that is so important to me, but I’ve never had a project where I could express that aesthetic.”
Fisher-Rozenberg’s work as Memory Pearl echoes what he loves about abstract art. “It allows for interpretation, which is a beautiful thing, because the last thing you want is to listen to a piece of music and to be told exactly how to listen to it, exactly what it means. I think it’s much more important for a viewer or a listener to be able to insert themselves and insert their own history into a work.”
However music is experienced or applied, Fisher-Rozenberg marvels at its mystical power to evoke memories and emotions. “If you’re sad and you’re listening to sad music, that’s because the music is validating your feelings… But then on the flip side, we use music all the time to manipulate our feelings: maybe I’m feeling sad, but I don’t want to feel sad, so I’ll put on some kind of sunshine record.” Moreover, music can provide a safe distance from one’s own trauma, a baby step towards being able to confront that trauma. “If I have trauma in my life, maybe I’m not quite ready to confront that trauma. But if I hear something similar in a song, I can just talk about the song. I don’t have to talk about myself.”
Though we’ve all been using music in these ways our whole lives, “It’s a little chaotic, and we can’t quite put the words to it,” Fisher-Rozenberg says. “We don’t even think about this stuff. We just do it because intuitively, it feels safe, and it feels right.” Music therapy, he summarizes, is “making a science of it and then using those tools to help people reach [rehabilitation] goals in an organized way.”
If we all take a moment to think about how we use and experience music every day – how safe and right it makes us feel – then like Fisher-Rozenberg, our relationship with this mystical force will deepen, too.
Music for 7 Paintings is out now via Idée Fixe Records.