by PETER DORFMAN
In July 2018, neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor received an unexpected email from Brad and Doug Balliett, the renowned twin orchestral composers. They proposed making Taylor’s life and work the focus of a new choral composition, thus providing perhaps the strangest-ever answer to the age-old question, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
Bolte Taylor, a Bloomington native, is famous for her 2008 TED Talk, “My Stroke of Insight,” where she discusses the stroke she suffered at age 37, her eight-year recovery, and her deeper understanding of the brain that came from the experience. Hers is considered the first TED Talk ever to go viral. It led to a 2008 book of the same title, which made The New York Times best-seller list. That same year, Time magazine chose her as one of its 100 Most Influential People in the World.
The TED Talk caught the attention of Brad Balliett, who then read the book and got the inspiration for the choral work that eventually became “Fifty Trillion Molecular Geniuses.” The title refers to the number cells in the human body.
The piece, commissioned by the Cecilia Chorus of New York, had its world premiere at Carnegie Hall in May 2019. Music director and conductor Mark Shapiro wove the piece into a triptych of choral-orchestral works, with Johannes Brahms’ “Alto Rhapsody” and Edward Elgar’s “The Music Makers.” The 175-voice choir was accompanied by a 50-piece orchestra.
“The composers took certain phrases from my TED Talk and wrote music around them,” says Bolte Taylor, who attended the premiere with 30 friends. “They wrote music that led up to the phrase, and then away from it. They captured the feeling underneath the words. The chorus would sing these phrases, almost in a whisper, mimicking the background chatter of the left brain. They conveyed the experience I had of blissful euphoria and then my mind becoming completely silent. When the mezzo soprano [Amanda Lynn Bottoms] spoke the phrase, ‘I was no longer the choreographer of my own life,’ that moment moved me to tears.”
The performance was May 3, the day before Bolte Taylor’s 60th birthday. While she sat in a first-tier box, the chorus and audience sang “Happy Birthday.”
“This was like a cheering squad from the Universe, saying ‘Keep on doing what you’re doing,’” Bolte Taylor says. “It was ridiculously delicious.”