During a lazy moment last week (“But I thought all your moments were lazy…”), I sat flipping through Time Out Chicago when I came across an article about Chicago musician Joel Styzens. With a music degree in percussion from Milikin University, Styzens was working odd drum gigs around town and teaching at Old Town School of Folk Music when, in 2006, he awoke to a painful ringing in his ears; it was the onset of tinnitus (the misinterpretation of some neurological signals as sound) with an accompanying dose of hyperacusis (agonizing sensitivity to certain frequencies). The sudden debilitation forced Styzens to reimagine his future, one where he wasn’t a percussionist.
After a period of uncertainty, Styzens realized that he could redirect his musical skills in a new direction and began to work with an acoustic guitar. Though it initially irritated his hearing, he was able to use the instrument to work out new sounds his impaired hearing provided. As Joel himself says, “I hear all these full, resonant sounds and chords that I just can’t find in standard tuning, or typical alternate tunings. I had to find a way to make them. I tune and place my fingers on the fretboard until the right sounds appear.” Styzens then met up with Chicago Symphony Orchestra cellist Katinka Kleijn and the two recorded Relax Your Ears, released in 2009 on A-Sharp Records, the pitch of his tinnitus.
All this is a great story, but you can go ahead and forget it all if you want because the music speaks for itself. If you head over to relax-your-ears.com, you can stream the entire album, and then use the links to buy it (which, if you are like me, you will do before you even finish streaming). For a quicker dose of Styzens, I’ve embedded “Life Line,” a song dedicated to Styzens’ mother in honor of her support during his initial diagnosis and “Reflection,” the song which struck me strongest when I first listened to the album.
I always forget how much I love the timbre of the cello and here you get the beautiful interplay with it and the guitar that produces a lovely, ghost-like and diaphanous wisp. The sound falls under the category of classical, but this is of a contemporary bent; I feel that many could easily fall in love with this.
The Time Out article was in advance of a concert Styzens was performing with cellist Sophie Webber (Kleijn is on hiatus nursing an elbow strain), but I caught it too late to attend. I will be keeping a keen eye out for future performances from this new favorite, but in the mean time I will just have to “relax my ears” and enjoy what I’ve got.