Archives for category: Music

The event, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank tonight, and simultaneously broadcast live on Radio 3, was described in the accompanying programme notes as the BBC Concert Orchestra delving ‘into the depths of the human psyche playing with fear, anxiety and madness in an examination of hysteria…’

This intrigued me. I was also unsure what to expect…

The works performed included Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, excerpts from Maxwell Davies The Devils Suite, the world premiere of Jocelyn Pook’s Hearing voices, and Muse’s Hysteria (I want it now) arranged by Patrick Nunn.

It was an extraordinary evening.

Firstly, Schoenberg. Knowing a little about the controversy that surrounded Pierrot Lunaire, I was slightly anxious about what I was going to experience. First performed 100 years ago this year, its initial reception was not overly positive. In fact, the discordant and ‘ear-splitting’ tones of Schoenberg’s work were accused of desecrating the walls of the Berlin concert hall where the premiere was held (

The piece is based on the poetry of Albert Giraud. Schoenberg was obsessed with numbers, and created 21 movements, arranged as three times seven, and thus Op.21 (and also presumably why ‘H7steria’). It is difficult music to explain, unpredictable, and constantly shifting in terms of mood and tone. It therefore constantly surprises, and I progressively warmed to its strangeness. In fact, the outcry that surrounded its premiere, as well as performances since, now seem inexplicable to me. The origins of Schoenberg’s composition have been linked with Freud, and the concept of hysteria, but it seems unlikely that art as complex as this could be traced to any single source or inspiration.

Secondly, excerpts from Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Devils Suite (Sister Jeanne’s Vision and The Exorcism), the score for Ken Russell’s 1971 film, The Devils. The film, similar to Schoenberg’s piece, has also been highly controversial, and was heavily censored at the time, due to accusations of ‘depravity’ and ‘blasphemy’. Today, the film can still cause shock, even outrage, with its themes of self-flagellation, masturbation and nude orgies. I was again surprised tonight by the excerpts that I heard from Maxwell Davies’ score. They were beautiful, haunting, eerie, perhaps at times even a little terrifying. Sublime.

Thirdly, the commissioned piece by Jocelyn Pook, with the composer’s song cycle Hearing Voices receiving it’s world premiere tonight. The work was primarily inspired by Pook’s great aunt, Phyllis, who was in an asylum for the last 25 years of her life. When she died, the composer discovered her great aunt’s writings in a trunk, documents of her breakdown and also her struggle to make sense of it all. Hearing Voices also tells the stories of four other women, including that of Pook’s mother, who had a breakdown in the 1950s, of Agnes Lister, who features in Gail Hornstein’s book Agnes’s Jacket, and of the contemporary artist Bobby Baker.

The mezzo-soprano who sang and acted (and did both wonderfully) the stories of these women tonight was Melanie Pappenheim, who coincidentally is a descendant of Bertha Pappenheim, Freud’s famous patient ‘Anna O’.

The BBC Concert Orchestra performed a score that alternated between being background to the voices of the women, and to the fore. A wondrous score, it haunted and still lingers, mirroring a similar effect from hearing each sufferer’s story. The combination of the orchestral score, the real voices of some of the women whose lives and experiences this work was based on, Pappenheims’s singing and acting/re-enacting, as well as images and photographs, served to create something world making, that spoke of bearing witness, and of compassion.

Finally, we were treated to Patrick Nunn’s arrangement of Muse’s Hysteria. I like the original, but Nunn did something very original and intriguing here, which did, not quite confuse me, but made me sit up and listen, and consider. I needed to make sense of the otherness of something I had thought I had been familiar with. Which perhaps was the essence of what tonight was ultimately about.



I was really struck by something Lord David Puttman said at yesterday’s symposium on The Experience of Illness and the Arts (

The director shared clips from five of his most memorable films within this context (more on this later), one of which was The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. The clip he shared absolutely reflected the essence of what the book and the film was about, a ‘seeing’ of the sufferer’s experience through his eyes, or at least to the extent that any such thing is possible. In the clip, a nurse enters the room, and as she leaves switches on the TV, the cartoon channel. The sufferer, with ‘locked-in syndrome’, is utterly powerless and is unable to communicate that no, he absolutely does not want to endure listening to cartoons. The nurse’s action was not one of intended cruelty, most probably a moment of non-thinking. But it felt thoughtless and cruel nonetheless.

Lord Puttnam commented on the universality of the importance of what we choose to listen to. Thus, what our hearing senses are exposed to at the time of dying should be a critical component of how we die. He is right, it is important, even essential, on a very fundamental and human level, and it should require little effort, ‘mere’ thoughtfulness, to make happen. But I am not sure how often, if ever, this issue is addressed.

I am as yet undecided on my top 5 (unsure why I choose 5, must be contemplating the final 15 minutes or so…).

But, to kick off, one I am considering is Bob Dylan’s Workingman’s Blues (from the Album Modern Times):

‘Meet me at the bottom, don’t lag behind

Bring me my boots and shoes

You can hang back or fight your best on the front line

Sing a little bit of these workingman’s blues’


I have just spent the weekend at my Alma Mater, UCC, Cork (

The event was a thought provoking and enthralling symposium, which covered many diverse aspects of potential interactions between Illness and the Arts.

Music and poetry, including live performances and readings, visual art, fiction, social media and film, in the context of the experience of illness, were all explored in innovative and refreshing ways. Personal stories of the experience of illness were shared, and were both moving and enriching. We also heard about new models for exposing medical undergraduates to the humanities.

A very imaginatively curated art exhibition Living/Loss: The Experience of Illness in Art is currently on at The Glucksman Gallery, UCC (until March 2013). It is so worth seeing.

Much to consider, and hopefully to follow on from the symposium, including a book in 2013.

I was particularly proud that, firstly, I was able to contribute to this landmark event, and secondly, that it took place where many years ago I first set off on the road that has led me here.


Continuing the Irish theme… this symposium takes place in Cork this coming weekend, and I am very excited to be attending, and contributing…

It promises to be eclectic, provocative, and thought provoking.

See you there…


The Irish Film Festival is on this weekend at The Tricycle cinema, and I was at the screening of Ballymun Lullaby last night.

The film had its premiere at the Dublin Film Festival last March, and has been released in Ireland. This was its first screening in London, and appropriately it happened in Kilburn. We were also treated to a flute duet by Ron and Tara (both in the film) beforehand, and a Q&A afterwards that also included the director Frank Berry.

The film opens with archive footage from RTE on the history of the Ballymun estate. The estate, ‘Ballymun flats’, was built in Dublin’s Northside as a solution to the acute housing shortage of the 1960s. The area suffered many social problems, particularly drug-related in the 1980s, and, as Ireland’s only high rise flats, became synonymous with deprivation, a label that it has never shaken off. Today, it is an area of regeneration, with most of the tower blocks demolished and replaced by houses.

The film centres on a music project, led by Ron Cooney, which has been active in the area for over 15 years. Ron’s mission has been to bring music into the schools and lives of the children of Ballymun. Passionate and charismatic, Ron tempts them into a world they would not otherwise experience. We follow Ron and the children as they prepare for and perform music specially composed for them (subsequently released as the CD Ballymun Lullaby) by Daragh O’Toole, who incorporated lyrics written by the children themselves.

Amazingly, just the director Frank Berry and a single cameraman shot the documentary, the making of the CD and its aftermath, without any funding initially, which only came through when filming had finished. The entire project comes across as a labour of love by all those involved.

As Ron commented afterwards, ‘Art is’. In many ways, the documentary highlights the fact that the music project is not just about the music itself, but more about the possibilities of what music can do, how it can add something, often indescribable but certainly meaningful, to lives. It is also about the people, the community of Ballymun who supported and encouraged their children to enter a world they never experienced themselves. Most notably, it is about Ron Cooney, who is extraordinarily committed and kind and funny. The kids love him, and now we do too.




This work has been on the periphery of my consciousness for ever. Last night I heard (and saw, as it was accompanied by a video installation) the piece performed by the London Sinfonietta at the Purcell Room, Southbank.

Inevitably, one thinks of the premiere of this work over 70 years ago, at the Stalag VIIIA prisoner-of-war camp, Barrack 27, Germany, January 1941. Messiaen had been captured while working as a hospital orderly (his poor eyesight precluded joining the army) during the German invasion of France in 1940. Fortunately, a music loving German guard supplied Messiaen with pencils and music paper and facilitated the composer creating his work undisturbed.

There was a violinist, a cellist and a clarinettist among Messiaen’s fellow prisoners, and he initially composed a trio for them. He later added a further 7 movements and piano, and this now constitutes Quartet for the End of Time as we know it.

The premiere was probably one of the most unusual and unique of its kind, performed in a Barrack on a freezing January night, to fellow prisoners as well as prison guards.

Of the event, Messiaen said:

‘Never have I been listened to with such attention and with such understanding.’

The story of the premiere inevitably lingers in any listening. Yet, the music itself is so hauntingly beautiful that any performance can stand alone as a sublime experience in itself. Thus it was last night. I was seduced, enthralled, and utterly moved by the music.

Messiaen was deeply religious, a devout Roman Catholic. The title of the quartet reflects its connection to the Book of Revelation:

“In homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse, who lifts his hand toward heaven, saying, ‘There shall be time no longer.'”

The end of time, or as Messiaen later clarified, the end of all time, appears to have a double significance here ( Firstly, it had a specific musical meaning for Messiaen. He no longer wanted time as dictated by the 1, 2, 3 of a drumbeat, but rhythms that ‘expanded, contracted, stopped in their tracks’. Secondly, the end of time means the end of life and the world as we know it, presumably triggered by the experience of living during WWII, as well as Messiaen’s deeply rooted religious beliefs. The work is divided into 8 movements, the 7 days of creation followed by the final day of eternity and timelessness.

The work is not apocalyptic in the sense that we usually use this word descriptively. Rather, it is ethereal, emotional and emotive, it surprises rather than disturbs, although it entices you into a world that is almost distressingly beautiful.