I'm pretty sure you will have heard of J.S. Bach, and quite possibly C.P.E. Bach, too. If you're a real student of the Baroque, you'll know about J.C.F. and J.C. Bach as well. There are others. But I'm pretty sure I have just encountered a new member of that talented and multi-initialled family: M.R.I. Bach.
I was in the hospital on Thursday afternoon having an annual MRI scan, a follow-up to some surgery I had a couple of years ago. If you've never had an MRI, you've missed out on a truly unique experience. There's nothing quite like it, especially if you've ever been an aficionado of "altered states". It's rather like the sort of thing they would put you through in order to assess your suitability for astronaut training. Although, regrettably, there are no rewards for stoical displays of the Right Stuff, beyond knowing you won't have to do it again for another year. Phew.
First, you must submit to interrogation: do you have any piercings, any non-permanent dentures, any metal body parts, any embedded shrapnel or metal splinters – basically anything that might rip your body apart when exposed to a powerful magnetic field? Do you now, or have you ever had one of the following list of bizarre medical conditions? Don't just laugh, please say yes or no. Yes, we know you're unlikely to be pregnant. So, have you had an MRI before? Good, then I don't need to tell you what to expect. Did you react to the muscle relaxant or the intravenous contrast substance with the unmemorable name? Sign here. Now get your kit off, and put on two of these ridiculous gowns, one on the front, one on the back. Ha ha, no, never heard that joke about feeling like a shepherd in the school Christmas Nativity play before. So how are you with needles?
Now, they do know that undergoing MRI is a deeply unpleasant and disorientating experience. In fact, they place a panic button into the hand on the end of the arm that does not have a tube on a needle sticking into it. Why? Because they are going to slide you head-first into a narrow, enclosed receptacle, not unlike a mortuary cabinet, which some people, lacking the Right Stuff, find intolerable. The morbidly obese may well find it impossible; there's not much wriggle-room in there. Deliberately so: you're not expected to wriggle at all, or even twitch. Make the slightest shift, and they'll start all over again. It's like getting a portrait done in a Victorian photographer's studio. Except the exposures are much longer.
You are also given earplugs and a pair of headphones, because MRI is noisy. Very, very, very noisy. And very, very, very, very repetitive. And occasionally it gets much LOUDER, followed by a profound silence, then it SUDDENLY gets more bleepy, like a car alarm, followed by an intense grinding sound... It's all a bit like some 1960s sci-fi film, or a Marvel Comics scenario. You half expect to emerge bullet-proof, like Luke Cage, or endowed with some other bizarre superpower. Tinnitus Man! No loud noise can ever startle him!
You can choose to listen to music through the headphones, something which in the past I've declined – I like to take my torture straight – but this time I thought, why not?
"What have you got?", I asked.
"We've got everything!", they said.
Oh, really... I decided not to ask for the rare but exquisite first album by The Bhundu Boys (you do have to lie very, very still for half an hour, and jit, whilst jolly, is not very calming) so I opted for Bach. J.S. Bach, obviously.
As my ordeal by magnet began, something that sounded quite like the first Brandenburg Concerto started to trickle through my spongy earplugs. Now, not surprisingly, everything with a metal component in it kept within the MRI suite has a red "MR UNSAFE" sticker on it. (Great name, no? "They call me ... Mr. Unsafe!"). Clearly, proper headphones, being essentially metal'n'magnet affairs, are not "MR safe". I suspect these special MR-safe headphones must work on a similar principle to a yoghurt pot on the end of a taut string, or pressing an ear to the party wall to hear what the neighbours are
However, once the beeps, buzzes, and rhythmic grinding of the machine got going, it suddenly all became incredibly interesting. I was listening to a demented but compelling mashup of distorted Baroque orchestra and industrial electronica. I know the Brandenburgs backwards (well, not actually backwards, but you know what I mean) so the various interruptions and overlays of the MRI machine's robotic grunts and warblings were interweaving intriguing aleatory counterpoints across the over-familiar music, like interference patterns in a pond. Or perhaps more like Robert Rauschenberg rubbing out that drawing by Willem de Kooning, or even those naughty Chapman Brothers defacing Goya prints. I found I was actually enjoying myself; in fact, I was dipping in and out of some sort of trance state, accompanied by vivid eyelid movies. Talk about the Right Stuff! John Cage would have been proud of me.
Occasionally, the music would stop, and a muffled, faraway voice with a heavy Belfast accent dribble through the headphones and earplugs.
"Wiff-waff nibble nork?"
"Wha'? Can't hear!"
"WIFF-WAFF NIBBLE NORK? Doughnut movie egg!"
And off we would go again. On and ON and on and ON ... You get the picture. By the end of my session, and the fourth electro-magnetically "prepared" Brandenburg, I was convinced M.R.I. Bach was a bankable proposition, even if a suitable cocktail of intravenous muscle relaxants and a lengthy period of enforced immobility might be a necessary precondition. I could even start a club – MR UNSAFE? – although it's true that MRI machines are notoriously and prohibitively expensive.
When they finally wound me back out into reality, I was almost tempted to ask for another go. Maybe next year. It seems like an appropriate way to start the festive season.