May 24, 2024

Stories about nonverbal autistic teens rarely galvanize the public imagination. But when one such youth has made the transition in a few short years from having a limited ability to communicate to having co-written a symphony, people are going to take notice, and be touched. That’s the case with Jacob Rock, a 19-year-old from Eagle Rock, Calif. who had the vision for — and was fully involved in the execution of — “Unforgettable Sunrise,” a 70-minute symphonic piece that premieres Saturday night at Glendale’s Alex Theatre.

A video report on Rock and his collaborator on the symphony, Rob Laufer, by SoCal public television station KQED has proved so popular, a TikTok excerpt has registered 1.8 million views this week, along with 272,000 likes and 2,200 comments, many of them from viewers with autistic family members. (Watch the video that’s gone viral, below.) Laufer wrote and arranged the score for “Unforgettable Sunrise” based on very detailed notes Rock wrote out describing the instrumentation, mood and even timing of the piece he had in his head, down to the seconds each passage should last. Every bit of the symphony was, in Rock’s mind, meant to express to the outside world what it has been like to be an autistic person who has struggled to let family members and the world understand what is going on in his head. (Some educators had believed he suffered from a low IQ, although a neurologist confirmed what his parents had long believed, that he was highly intelligent.)

Among the kind of instructions that Jacob gave Laufer about orchestrating his vision: “Some glimmers of panic remain in the section, in the form of sudden bursts of martial rhythm and harp, because life never settles in my situation.”

Jacob Rock has been a bit of a local celebrity already in a certain segment of the L.A. musical community. His father, Paul Rock, who works in the film industry, is the founder of the Wild Honey charity, which raises money for autism causes by holding annual benefits at the Alex where well-known or cult singer-songwriters front a large band that recreates the work of artists like the Beatles, the Band, the Beach Boys, Big Star or Buffalo Springfield. Jacob often comes out with his father at the beginning of these shows to help music fans understand just what these benefits are accomplishing.

In advance of Saturday’s show (find tickets here), which will have 54 musicians from USC playing the symphony, Variety talked with Paul Rock about Jacob’s unique story and what to expect from “Unforgettable Sunrise” (which will be filmed professionally, for the benefit of those who’ve taken an interest not just locally but globally).


Jacob Rock is autistic and can’t speak. After years of practicing typing on an iPad, his neurologist confirmed he can type and express himself on his own. Not too long after, Jacob told his parents he wrote a 70-minute symphony in his head. It will debut at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, Calif., on Sept. 30.

♬ original sound – kqed

When did you get the idea that Jacob had ideas for a symphony that could be translatable in a collaboration with a musician like Rob?

Paul Rock: Well, he first said he had the symphony in his head about six months into COVID, in 2020. That’s when he started typing really well. He’d been practicing typing for seven years but never really totally got fluent until COVID, when I was doing school with him every day, and we were just typing nonstop all the time. Six months later, he dropped the bomb about the symphony in his head, and then proceeded to describe it. He’d been working on it, apparently for years, in his brain. What he typed out was detailed in terms of the instruments, the mood, the textures, the pacing, and the feelings. He would tie all his feelings in with each instrument; you know, violins would be happy or horns would be sad. It all would relate to his journey of going from being completely miserable, without being able to communicate, and also in a lot of physical pain, to be able to communicate everything by typing. So that’s his sunrise.

We got to the point where I said, “This is pretty amazing. I should find someone to collaborate and turn it into notes.” Of course, the first person I would turn to would be Rob, because, one, we’ve been working together since 1994 — he’s the main person (putting together and arranging for the musicians) at Wild Honey and he’s very intuitive. He loves Jake, and he’s got his own studio, and he’s got all his gear, so he was very well-equipped to do it. He was a little hesitant to take it on because it just seemed really daunting to him to try to match the words to music in a way Jacob would be happy with. But by the end of 2020, Rob was on board. Then it was slow at first because Rob was just sort of feeling it out, and Jacob would reject things early on and say, “No, that’s not my symphony” or “Change this or change that.” But by the middle of the collaboration, they were pretty much on exactly the same page, and Jake was convinced from that point that Rob was reading his mind. By the end Rob would create two minutes of music, send it to Jake, get his notes, and then keep going, and Jake would be approving every couple of minutes of music. Both parties grew extremely close by the end. Jacob claims to have been reading Rob’s mind, as well.

What is the style of the music? The excerpts you have posted from rehearsals sound very complex and very much in a modern classical vein.

Rob has done our (Wild Honey) charts for years but didn’t know if he was up to doing this, on that level. But he totally was, enough to get real classical people interested in helping us. It’s very complex because it goes heavily into 20th century classical stuff like Philip Glass and Stravinsky. And then there’s a lot of rhythm and a whole Brian Wilson “Pet Sounds” influence as well. “Smile” is Jake’s favorite. And I think (Frank) Zappa is in there, also. But since Jacob was a child, he loved (the Beach Boys’ “Smile” song) “Cabinessence.” He used to dance around to that song when he was 18 months.

You take Jacob to a lot of concerts… like Neil Young’s solo show, recently. He is a tremendous music fan. But sometimes you have said he becomes agitated and can’t stay — that has happened at Wild Honey benefits. Do you think he will be fine, watching his symphony come to life at the Alex, or is that always unpredictable with someone with his condition?

You know, we never know until it happens, but two big factors with him are: How much sleep did he get the night before? And does he have any gastrointestinal issues at that moment? And those are the two things that can keep him from being able to sit through something. But if all the ducks are in line in terms of his body, then he’ll definitely sit there and be incredibly joyful. Because he’s been to two rehearsals so far and sat for three hours. I think it’s a little different this time because it’s his music, and he’s willing to put aside his distress to tough it through, to stay. Like, the first rehearsal, he only had one hour of sleep the night before, and he was incredibly vocal throughout the whole thing. The musicians were like, “What’s going on?” — as he was doing his (nonverbal) vocalizations. But he was much calmer in the second one because he had slept the night before.

So, his brain and his body are always at war in some way. And that’s actually in the description of the symphony”. You know, there’s stuff where it’s relating that conflict that he has. So it’s a beautiful thing in that respect. Because if anybody wants to experience his inner life in a real visceral level, this is the way to do it. Because there’s a lot of joy and there’s a lot of distress, so it makes for good conflict, which makes for good music.

Jacob types out some fairly advanced, adult-like thoughts about music and film, with great spelling, and considerable emotion. How did he learn to read and write so well, even though he can’t speak, and lacks certain skills most of us take for granted?

You can put a couple paragraphs in front of him and ask him questions, and he’ll have full comprehension. He doesn’t have the focus to sit there with a book, or even have the motor planning to turn the pages when he’s ready. But you put something in front of him, or you show him a foreign film, and he’ll read the subtitles and he’ll give you a synopsis of a sentence or two and then a little critique, fully understanding every Italian word that was said. So he taught himself to read; you know, they (his early educators) didn’t really teach him. And also he watched copious amounts of “Sesame Street” over the years.

With him being so constantly communicative now on an iPad [which Paul holds while Jacob types], that has to be thrilling for you as a parent, to know what he’s thinking. It must make his condition so much less mysterious, since he is able to verbalize so much of what’s going on. But is there a sense in which makes things sort of more mysterious, inasmuch as you know now his brain is processing and analyzing a lot of things the same way the rest of us would, and yet there are still those crucial differences?

I think we’ve learned about his memory and his ability to consume information in large quantities, and that he can hold all this in his head at once — I think that’s been the biggest revelation, At one point he said, “I’ve got four symphonies in my head, and I think I’m full now.” … I asked him, “How are you so good at Jeopardy?” And he is like, “On ‘Jeopardy,’ there’s always a clue within a clue. That’s how I figure it out.” He’s very, very smart, in terms of his being able to get the information, process it, and hold onto it. He’s got an opera in his brain right now that’s Mozart-influenced, he says. I hear him like making noises that are very singing-like, and he says, “Yeah, I’m singing all the songs from my opera” — in his head, of course. But at the same time, while he’s making noise, he says, “I have perfect pitch in my head.” So, he’s always working, and he’s got apparently the lyrics to an entire opera in his head. He hasn’t written anything down yet, but he has it stored up there, like he did with the symphony, so that part is the biggest revelation of typing, is that we’ve seen at least some of what goes on in there, and it’s pretty remarkable.

Having seen a fair amount of what he has typed out, there are some quirks about what he says that are fun and amusing. Like, he really seems to be extremely fond of the word “damn” — but usually in a positive context, like, “I’m damn excited about what’s happening.”

Yeah, it is funny. He definitely likes that word. He’s always “damn excited.” He goes through phases too with words, like everybody else. “I’m concerned” is a big one. Even if he really wasn’t that concerned, he liked to start a sentence with that, or he uses it ironically. Like, “I’m concerned my life is fantastic.”

The story has touched some other parents of autistic children, we know from the comments. Obviously, not everyone who has a nonverbal child is going to experience the same breakthrough. But do you think sharing your story has offered some hope, just generally speaking, to people who are dealing with family members somewhere around the same gradations on the scale?

Yes. In the TikTok comments, there were a good number of them from parents with nonverbal kids, and they were very inspired by and hopeful about the story. I know there are people who are working on typing but haven’t gotten there yet. I said, “Well, Jacob worked for seven years, so just keep at it, because they’ll get it, and once they get it, that motor planning is something that you lock it in.” But you have to lock it in, and so that’s why it takes so long. We did hand over hand with typing, with words, just so he could get used to the motion and where the letters were, and we worked on that for seven years. I think people are inspired by that and the fact that if you just keep at it, the kids will eventually get it and then all of a sudden, you’ll have a typer. But it takes a lot. It doesn’t come easy to them, especially the ones that are similar to Jacob who can’t really coordinate their body with their brain.

I worked with him hand-over-hand to get in and out of the car, to do his seatbelt and close the door, and it took me four months of every day doing hand-over-hand and having him go through it, and then he got it and now he just does it automatically. So that’s very similar to the typing. Because the brains are there. They totally understand. And that’s what I think was frustrating for Jacob, and now I’m sure it is for a lot of other kids, is that they have this really great mind that they’re not getting credit for, and their body just won’t cooperate with what they want. And of course, the most difficult motor planning thing there is is talking. That’s something everybody takes for granted, but it’s probably the most complex motor planning that any human can do, and so that’s why there’s so many kids that can’t talk

When he’s upset or just feels like like his body’s really out of whack with his stomach or whatever, he’ll have his hands in his sleeves. There’s a lot of pictures and videos of his hands in his sleeves. But when it comes to typing, the hands come out of the sleeves, and he’s ready to tell you what’s going on. The only other thing that motivates him the same way is eating. He’ll take his hands out of his sleeves to eat, and he’ll take out his hands to type. Those are the two things that are so essential to him now the hands come out, and he does what he has to do.

Rob must be an unusual person to work on this symphony for years now with Jacob.

Rob took on the challenge and I give him so much credit. He’s like 150 percent into this thing and just really, really worked really hard to make it what Jacob wanted. He also put a lot of stuff of his own in it. He would make some changes, and he didn’t tell Jake, and then Jake would say, “I like that transition you changed,” catching the only thing he changed. He can listen to something and know exactly how it matches up with what’s in his head, which is mind-blowing in itself, that he’s all got it all up there and he knows it by heart. And then we’re moving on to the opera. So, that will be interesting. I’m not sure how I’m going to produce that; it’s not really my forte, but neither was doing a symphony, either.

Did we hear there has been interest in picking up film rights since this story has gotten publicized?

Yes. It would be an interesting role because someone has to get his noises down — I guess somebody could figure that out, but some of the noises he does are very sophisticated, even though it’s not intelligible, so the actor would have a challenge, in getting his stuff down. Of course, he could probably let him play himself, if he could hit his mark. Anyway, we’re in the early stages of that, but it seems like they’re really serious. So, we’ll see.

He’s excited, of course. His goal, he says, is “to tell the world all about my my music and inspire other people.” So he’s very conscious of his autism and his inspirational ability. The surprises never stop in terms of his ability to be aware of everything that’s going on, and he’s been listening to us for his entire 19 years, very, very carefully.

His famous thing that he told me was, “When you die, I’m going to be really sad. Really, really sad. But, I have all our memories stored away. So I’ll just replay them all the time.” That’s so distressing, but also like, OK, he’s got it all in his brain. He says he’s just going to be able to just relive these things just because he’s got this incredible memory bank.

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