Joel Styzens’ 2009 CD Relax Your Ears is categorized as classical, and it is. It also plays out like an independent film soundtrack, with touches of ambient-jazz and New Age music that you feel down to your core, subliminally, not just hear then forget about.
Styzens used to play jazz/rock drums in and around the Chicago area, after having earned a degree in percussion. He even began teaching at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Life was good — until 2006 when he suffered from painful A-sharp ringing of the ears. Sounds he used to take for granted, like traffic or dishwashing, now hurt him tremendously to hear. He learned from doctors that he’d developed Tinnitus (ringing ears) and Hyperacusis (hyper-sensitivity to sound) — essentially wiping away his jazz music career.
Most of us would’ve given up and given in to depression. But Styzens loved music so much, he couldn’t just sit there and do nothing. He took up acoustic guitar, put in earplugs, went through various treatments and therapies, and began writing a different kind of music, one that was kind to his ears, one that evolved from his jazz/rock roots and became a hybrid of all kinds of music, and one that led him beyond hearing, into feeling the rhythms and beats.
Styzens took everything he knew, everything he had to know, and everything he heard — in the aftermath of his hearing impairment — and put it all into this, his first CD, released on his own label, A-Sharp Records. “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.”
From the moment I tuned into “A-Sharp,” the first of 12 tracks, I haven’t been able to shake the haunting, floating, and ethereal melodies. They seem to drive some invisible life story of the human condition, adding poignancy underneath, whether I’m grocery-shopping for jambalaya ingredients at Albertson’s, glancing through a Shutterfly slideshow of my eight-year-old son’s Valentine’s Day class party, reading and posting about nothing on Facebook and Twitter, or writing my weekly soap opera columns on SoapZone.com. I even hear Styzens’ emotionally resonant songs in my dreams, as I’m flying over the Pacific ocean toward home-Hawaii, or dancing in a yellow, crocheted afghan wedding gown during war-torn Korea.
Styzens combines his artful, delicate sensibilities on acoustic guitar with the lilting feminine touch of cellist Katinka Kleijn, from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, to produce simply beautiful, emotionally fragile, and diverse music that sinks in through the conscious into the subconscious and stay inside your soul.
I fell in love with two songs immediately, “As You Are,” and “7 8 6.” “As You Are” came to me immediately romantic, other worldly, almost a narrative in old, pre-Renaissance Europe, about lovers having to say goodbye forever and the result is the sad interplay between the woman (the cello) and the man (the acoustic guitar) as they reluctantly part. “7 8 6” is faster paced, immediately launching into a catchy, almost folky rhythm, as I picture a car chase in the streets of Holland as old people play chess in a park nearby. The rush of its intro then relaxes into slower rhythms and pauses, with great use of silence and an almost hypnotic sway.
Perhaps the best glimpse into what it must sound like for Joel Styzens to hear everyday noises and feel its pain, is in “Humboldt.” Here, the cello takes over, but it’s not gentle, kind or graceful and the bow pulls back, catching strings. It slowly grows into a threatening thunder cloud of sharp, metallic, scraping noise that is almost hard for me to take, and I don’t suffer from Tinnitus and Hyperacusis. The noise also reminds me of underwater creatures, whales and dolphins, calling out to one another, so there is some familiarity, comfort, and hope, amidst the confusion, disquiet, and fear.
Overall, it’s absolutely amazing what Styzens can do with music in his first CD effort — not just for himself but also for others like him, and others who simply like music that comes from different angles. I recommend you guys get this CD, plug it in everywhere you go, feel its healing power, and relax your ears.