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Jeff Beal's new collection of solo piano work speaks to living with multiple sclerosis


You likely heard Jeff Beal's music without knowing his name.


SIMON: The composer wrote the theme to the Netflix Series "House of Cards," and it earned him two of his five Emmys. The comedy series "Monk" earned another. Jeff Beal's also scored dozens of movies and documentaries. For the past 17 years, he's been living with an illness that not only changed his outlook on life but the way he makes music. Jeff Beal has multiple sclerosis. He just released the "New York Etudes," a deeply personal album of solo piano works and compositions. He joins us from California. Mr. Beal, thanks so much for being with us.

JEFF BEAL: My pleasure, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What led you to composing this album?

BEAL: You know, it wasn't written during the pandemic, but the idea for it was born during the pandemic. During my normal sort of day job writing film and television music, I had the regular opportunity to be with a lot of live musicians, and I really missed that live musical experience. My main instrument has always been trumpet. Like, on that theme to "House Of Cards," I'm playing trumpet. But I've always played piano. But I really wanted to make some music. And trumpet's not the kind of instrument you kind of do for yourself for amusement. So I started really going back to this instrument, and then it kind of wiped away a lot of noise in the world for me.

SIMON: Let's listen a bit to the first composition, "Riverside Revelations."


SIMON: What inspired this piece?

BEAL: I remember very well in New York City, shortly after we moved there, the mayor of New York at the time said it's OK to take off masks when you're outside. And I remember walking through Riverside Park, which is where we live now, and just seeing random human faces again, Scott, and how that thing that we took so easily for granted was so beautiful and so hopeful.


BEAL: And it was around this time of year - it was kind of spring, and things were blooming. And I had this renewed sense of hope about life and people and how lucky we are. And I think the idea of gratitude and being grateful for something in life - it's not just an attitude. I think it's a choice.

SIMON: Do you mean we make a choice to be happy?

BEAL: Well, happiness - I think grateful. I think gratitude is a choice. This is how I feel about living with MS, for example. It's easy when you have a chronic illness and your body's not the same to see yourself as a victim. No, I decided very early on that I can't control that this has happened to me, but I can control how I respond to it. Listen, there's stages of anger and grief and mourning and shame that go into having any sort of illness. But for me, at the end of the day, I realize how lucky I am, and I realize how lucky I am to be a musician and how much that's given me.

SIMON: May I ask just this plainly, how does MS affect you every day?

BEAL: You know, like, right now, there's - a pretty typical symptom is neuropathic pains. My legs are sort of tingling a little bit. That's kind of a very common thing. Early on in the diagnosis, I had some trouble cognitively with just finding words and just - you know, listen, I'm a public person. That was, like, kind of terrifying. But, yeah, it's a daily thing, and I think the worst thing is really the fatigue.

SIMON: Let me ask you about a moment in your piece "The More Things Change."


SIMON: It's one note. Am I wrong to hear both pain and purpose in that note?


BEAL: I think that's a good description.


BEAL: I work from an intuitive space, but when I go back and listen to this, I hear this sort of story about struggle, about persistence. That's what being human is. Being human is still being the same person, having the basic Earth suit, but being able and malleable to sort of surrender, I think, to the idea of the shifting sands of life, of health, of politics, of family, you know, all these things.


BEAL: There's a seasonal aspect to the record. And it's funny, I wrote this one more towards winter, and it also feels a little more autumnal or even wintery - sort of that way in which you go inside, and you cocoon, and you rest, and you sort of gather up your strength for the next battle.


SIMON: I have read that you think the concentration required in composing music has helped to stave off MS.

BEAL: You know, when I was first diagnosed, of course, you get it, I got an MRI. And my wife looked at it, and she, being much more medically knowledgeable than me, noticed something very interesting is that the majority of my initial MS lesions, which are sort of the first stage of MS damage - most of them were in a part of the brain called the corpus callosum. This is actually a very significant part of the brain which connects the left and the right hemispheres. It's also known to be hyper-developed in musicians. So I'll never forget - we looked at that, and my wife said, look at where all your lesions are. And she just looked at me, with this beautiful look on her face, and she said, now I know why you've always been so busy writing because you knew that in order to keep your brain healthy, you needed to keep this activity going.


BEAL: We hope maybe there's going to be a cure and we'll be able to remyelinate the brain, but for now, it's a chronic disease, right? So I was looking for something hopeful. And really, the hopeful news for anybody that has MS or has a stroke or anything is that we've learned about this science called brain plasticity, in which the brain is able to actively rewire around damaged areas. So I really believe, Scott, that these past 17 years, not just playing the piano but daily composing music and working intensely artistically in this medium, has been a really important part of keeping those connections active - if there's damage, rewiring around them. And then I've been very fortunate also that the second level of MS is sort of gray matter atrophy. And I've been also very fortunate in the fact that after 17 years, I haven't had any appreciable gray matter loss, and that's - I think I can attribute this to a lot of things, one of them being music.

SIMON: Is there a piece of music you'd like us to hear while going out?

BEAL: Well, how about number four, which I dedicated to my mom, Rosemary? She was the first person to play any of this music other than me. She's 90 years old, living in assisted living.


BEAL: It's one of my favorites. It's very melodic. It's also reflective of the fact that for people that are good intermediate pianists, we're publishing the "Etudes," and I'd love for people to be able to play these and enjoy them as pianists.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEFF BEAL'S "I'M WITH YOU (FOR ROSEMARY)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.