A new dramatised song cycle about mental illness is premiered on December 3
Composer Jocelyn Pook explains the inspiration behind her new work, Hearing Voices, a dramatised song cycle for mezzo-soprano, recorded voices and orchestra, which will be premiered by the BBC Concert Orchestra, singer Melanie Pappenheim and conductor Charles Hazlewood at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London on December 3 as part of the concert ‘H7steria’. ‘H7steria’ will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 at 7.30pm. It will also be available on BBC iPlayer to listen again. Jocelyn Pook also releases the CD of her soundtrack to Akram Khan’s DESH on December 3 on her own label, Pook Music.
The idea for ‘Hearing Voices’ began with my great aunt, Phyllis Williams, who suffered a mental breakdown when she was middle-aged in the 1930s and spent the following 25 years of her life in a mental asylum, where she died. She wrote copiously before and during her incarceration, describing her experiences and what the voices she was hearing were saying, all the time trying to make sense of what was happening to her. These writings, often poetic, strange and whimsical, were jotted down on scraps of paper and in notebooks, and as well as giving us insight into her life and inner world, are a fascinating account of a breakdown. My mother, Mary Pook, discovered these jottings in a battered old trunk and used extracts from them to write an unpublished biography of Phyllis. This became the starting point for Hearing Voices.
I then became interested in hearing the stories of others who had suffered mental illness or abnormal mental states, making a series of interviews with several people, including my mother who had a breakdown in the 1950’s, and the artists Bobby Baker and Julie McNamara who have both explored their experiences of mental illness in their own work. Their testimonies, insights and voice cadences then began to inform the piece, both conceptually and musically, fragments of the spoken voices starting to be woven into the score.
The piece has its lighter moments. One section grew out of their infectious laughter and their ability to find humour in the bleakest of situations. In this I have notated their giggles and guffaws, which are played by the orchestra alongside the recorded laughter to create quite an energetic, macabre piece.
Another big influence on this piece was Gail Hornstein’s inspiring book, Agnes's Jacket: A Psychologist’s Search For The Meaning Of Madness. Hornstein, quite unusually for someone working in this field, is interested in patients telling their own stories. Her book forms part of an increasingly large body of work that can be characterised as protest literature, in that it records a sense of injustice at the treatment and the lack of understanding that these people have endured. It is also a document that tries to make sense of what happens to them when they are not getting the support from the people who are supposed to be helping them.
The ‘jacket’ of the title is an extraordinary artefact made by Agnes Richter, a seamstress who was admitted to a mental asylum in the 19th century. She created a beautifully tailored jacket from ripped up hospital uniforms, and covered every inch of it with embroidered, cryptic writing. Although largely indecipherable, a few words and phrases have now been decoded. The jacket is now in the Prinzhorn Collection in University Hospital Heidelberg. I have used some of the phrases deciphered from Agnes’s jacket in one section of this song cycle.
My mother has always been quite open and matter-of-fact about the subject of mental illness. After her breakdown she said that ‘no one would even talk about it’, it was so taboo. Trying to make sense of what happened to her she wrote a novel, In Two Minds, about her illness and the medical response to it, published under her writer name Mary Cecil. She also wrote some articles and spoke publicly about it, and her family were appalled. As far as they were concerned it was ‘a terrible embarrassment and disgrace, and should never be mentioned again’. Things are improving but there is still much ignorance and stigma associated with mental illness.
Agnes, Bobby, Julie, Phyllis and my mother all contributed to this project in different ways, and I have collaborated with the director/dramaturg Emma Bernard to create a text from their powerful testimonies, which the singer Melanie Pappenheim brings to life with a sensitivity and vocal originality. It is a piece that celebrates five different women across five different generations who have all experienced a mental illness. Their words, protests and laughter shed a light on a world that is often ignored.