Madeleine Davies

Songs of agony and ecstasy: a review of “Music on the Mind”

In Uncategorized on January 13, 2016 at 11:19 pm

Harvey Brough conducts Vox Holloway at the Premiere of Music on the Mind, 29 November 2015

It was the loss to suicide of four friends within two years that inspired Justin Butcher and Harvey Brough to create “Music on the Mind”. A new choral work, drawing on texts by “unquiet minds”, including those of Sylvia Plath and John Clare, it was performed for the first time at St Luke’s, Holloway, in November. I was in the pews and deeply moved.

I think it was the sight of members of the Maudsley Hospital’s Mind and Soul Choir shouting “KICK IT DOWN! KICK IT DOWN!” that thrilled me most. Comprised of staff and service users, their friends, family and carers, the choir was the beating heart of the performance. As they delivered with gusto this refrain (part of a choral adaptation of “An Unquiet Mind”, Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir of manic-depression) they were both deliberate – eyes firmly fixed on their conductor – and free, exhilarated.

The choir is open, its Soundcloud page explains, to anyone “who wants to express their joy through singing”. Given the tragic origins of “Music on the Mind” it was striking how much joy emanated from the two choirs (Mind and Soul performed alongside Vox Holloway) on the night. The programme, written by Butcher, expressed the hope that:

“If we can start to recognise and celebrate the incredible contributions made in our history by countless inspired, brilliant women and men afflicted by anxiety, depression, psychosis or bipolar disorder, there might be less stigma attached to these conditions. More widely supported and understood, perhaps fewer mental health sufferers would end up taking their own lives.”

The texts used in the work give voice to pain, despair and horror. But they also express ecstasy, hubris, intimations of revelation and super-human perspicacity. Passages from Kay Redfield’s memoir had the audience laughing out loud. When I reflected on these texts, and on Butcher’s notes, I was struck by the tension between recognising the hell of mental torment (the fact that his “bright, dynamic, creative” friends were “overwhelmed by a seemingly incurable despair” felt “so appalling wrong, so appalling sad”) and celebrating the gifts of those plunged therein.

The first part – choral settings to seven poems – was entitled “Saturnalia”. Butcher reminds us in his notes that the Ancients celebrated Saturn’s domain – melancholia – as “an inescapable, even necessary, element of life.” The Saturnalia was a “crazy orgy of torch-lit dancing, music and revelry”.

Several of the poems chosen explore the idea that the “mad” among us have something to teach us. “I know more than Apollo” boasts Tom O’Bedlam in an anonymous song from the 17th century. I wonder whether R D Laing, who rejected the “medical model of mental illness”, might have been a fan of Emily Dickinson’s “Much Madness is Divinest Sense”. The suggestion that the “mad” might enjoy a greater wisdom  has scientific weight. In “Manufacturing Depression” Gary Greenberg cites an experiment exploring people’s ability to identify the connection between their activity and a set of results (in this case the link between pushing a button and a light coming on or off). It was the people diagnosed as depressed who “excelled” at estimating the extent to which they were responsible for the results. The researchers concluded that “depressed people are ‘sadder but wiser’” while “non-depressed people succumb to cognitive illusions that enable them to see both themselves and their environment in a rosy glow”.

It is also possible to identify hubris, even narcissism, in the poems. In “Note”, Fernando Pessoa imagines the Gods staring “intrigued” at a shard of his shattered soul. “I have more sensations than when I felt like myself,” he muses.

In celebrating the works of artists affected by anxiety, depression and psychosis, “Music on the Mind” might be regarded as a contribution to the age-old exploration of the connection between madness and genius, or creativity (“There is no great genius without some touch of madness” mused Seneca, back in the day ). The incidence of mental illness among great artists and intellectuals has proved a popular subject of study and I enjoyed reading this reflection on the work of the psychiatrist Nancy Andreasen:

“What Andreasen found wasn’t confirmation for the “tortured genius” myth — the idea that a great artist must have some dark, tragic pathology in order to create — but quite the opposite: these women and men had become successful writers not because of their tortuous mental health but despite it.”

It’s a reminder that the beauty evident in the works of the friends who inspired “Music on the Mind”, and the poems that power it, was probably achieved in the face of substantial obstacles.

I also recommend this fascinating essay by Dr John Morgan of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which reminds us that creativity is important not only to celebrated artists but to those of us considered ordinary.

“For people with mental illness the creative process can provide a means of recovery, when feelings are beyond words or self-esteem hits rock bottom. The creativity of employment makes us feel valued. Humour lets us put things in perspective. Therefore understanding the link between creativity and mental disorder helps us understand the nature of both. . . The creativity of famous people who have suffered mental disorders gives us an insight into the experience of mental illness. It also shows us the importance of creativity in the lives of mentally ill people who are more distant from genius.”

Of all the poems chosen, I was most moved by Butcher’s own, “That News”, composed on hearing the news of a friend’s child’s suicide. I found these words extraordinarily beautiful, an expression of hope (it draws on Julian of Norwich’s most famous refrain) with an exhortation to feel fully horror, grief, pain (“Weep, gasp, despair, rage, / Let storm-floods rake and rip through you”). They will resonate, I think, with anyone struggling to find appropriate ones for a friend.

It felt right that “Music on the Mind” should be performed in a church, a place where births and deaths are marked. A sanctuary for grief, where you can find silence, a priest, and great acoustics. John Clare’s “I Am”, closing Part I, reminded me of Psalm 6 (“I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears”). I thought, too, of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit priest whose Sonnets of Desolation chilled me as a teenager.

All ticket proceeds from the night went to Islington Mind and Soundwell Music Therapy Trust. Although the Government announced additional investments in mental health last year and has promised parity of esteem with physical health, there are worrying reports of an NHS service under pressure, including evidence of a lack of beds in inpatient facilities, leading to people being cared of far from home, placements which have a  “detrimental impact on the experience of patients and are associated with an increased risk of suicide”

While treatment has undoubtedly improved since Tom O’Bedlam’s time, his plea for compassion should be heard today.

Watch a preview of the performance here: 


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