This is a small extract from our latest episode of Extremes: a VICE podcast exclusive to Spotify. You can listen to the full story for free, right here
Born in upstate New York in 1952, Tony Cicoria says that as a kid he was much more interested in fishing than music. “My mother insisted I take piano lessons when I was seven years old,” he explained. “But I played for a year and I told her I’m not doing this thing anymore.”
Tony didn’t think about piano again until he was in his 40s. He went to medical school, became an orthopaedic surgeon, worked hard, and had kids. Then one day in 1994 he was at a family picnic at a place called Sleepy Hollow Lake, in Athens, New York. He was grilling meat over a BBQ when he realised he hadn’t spoken to his mum in a while, so he walked over to a pay phone and dialled her number.
At that moment, unbeknown to Tony, a big cloud had blown up over the lake—and just as he was about to hang up the receiver, a bolt of lightning forked from the cloud and slammed into the telephone line, surging through the phone and hitting him in the face. He was blown out of the box and a stranger found him on the ground.
Fourteen years later, Tony walked out onto a New York stage and played his debut composition to an audience of thousands. The piece he'd written was called “The Lightning Sonata."
To find out how Tony transformed from a musically-agnostic doctor into a concert pianist, we got him onto our podcast, Extremes. You should listen to the show for the full experience, but the following article is a small excerpt.
VICE: Hey Tony, tell us what happened when you woke up from the lightning strike.
Tony Cicoria: Well I awoke really pissed, because it was painful and I didn’t want to be there. Where the lightning hit me in the face and where it came out my foot, it was like somebody had stuck a hot poker in both the places. I was able to get up and walk so my family just loaded me in the car and took me home. That was kind of a beginning of everything.
How do you mean it was the beginning of everything?
I was a bit foggy at first, but the fog cleared after a few weeks, and then I started to have this incredible desire to hear classical music. So I bought this CD of Vladimir Ashkenazy, a famous Russian pianist, playing his favourite Chopin, and I started listening to it nonstop. Then I made everybody else listen to it as well—I’m sure they were pretty sick of it. But then I had this realisation that listening to this would not be enough. I would need to learn how to play it.
So, you got a piano and started playing. How did that go at first?
You know, my hands had no idea what to do and I was struggling to wrap my head around every aspect of it. It was really hard, but I just started teaching myself. And a little while later, I had this most incredible dream. In this dream, I was looking at myself playing on a stage and I was walking behind myself. And as I walked across the stage I realised I wasn’t playing somebody else’s music. I was playing my own music. And the music ended with a loud crash which woke me up.
You’d dreamed your own composition?
Yes. And I got up and I walked to the piano that was sitting in the living room. I started picking out some of the melodies that I heard but I didn’t know how to write anything down, so I thought “to hell with this” and went back to bed. But every time I sat down at the piano from that moment on, the music would start playing with my head and it was always the same. If I tried to ignore it, it would start playing loudly. And so the music really became an obsession.
Tell me more about that obsession.
I would get up at four o’clock and I would practice until I needed to leave for work at six o’clock. I would then go to work and I would work 12 hours, come home, spend an hour with the kids—it was kind of my ritual—and then I would be back at the piano till midnight and I couldn’t see straight anymore.
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And you were always trying to play the music from your dream?
That’s right. Whenever I sat down at the piano, the music from the dream would start playing in my head. I would write down a measure or a line and stick it in a drawer thinking, well, some time I’ll come back to this. Finally, one day, I took all those scraps of papers I had been stuffing in drawers and sat down and spent the next seven months writing the music from the dream in a way that could be read by somebody else.
And what did you call the piece?
I called it “The Lightning Sonata.” But when I showed it to my musicologist friends, they said this couldn’t be a sonata, because it wasn't the correct form. But you can title music anything you want, so I called it “Opus One: The Lightning Sonata.”
How did you go from there to performing in public?
Well one day I get a phone call from Oliver Sacks, and he said, “I want to use your story in my book. It’s going to be in the New Yorker on July 23rd.” And suddenly, the phone started ringing off the hook. One of the people who called me was one of the heads of the music department at the State University of New York. He said, “would you consider doing a concert at the Performing Arts Centre?” and he talked me into it. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
How did you prepare?
I called my piano teacher and she started working with me about four hours a day. How to walk onto the stage, how to walk off, how to approach the whole thing and how to memorise the music—it was a crazy amount of work. By the time the concert came in January of 2008, suddenly the BBC was coming and so was the German National Television and so was the Granada media. Suddenly, I had three television crews running all over the place. There were, I estimate, thousands of people in there.
Tell me about the night.
As I walked out onto the stage, there were all these lights just looking out over this sea of people. It was terrifying. I don’t know how I didn’t run away—I really don’t. But in the end, I made it through the entire program and that was it. The music was exactly like my dream. I sat down and played the music exactly as I heard it in the dream. I'd finally played "The Lightning Sonata.”
Of course, the burning question through all this is: why did a bolt of lighting make Tony obsessed with music? To hear the answer, you’ll have to listen to the show. Tony also talked about his out-of-body experience immediately after being struck, and how his musical transformation affected his wife and family life. It's all very, very interesting. That's the latest episode of Extremes, available for free and exclusive to Spotify.