Thursday, July 12, 2018

Hysteria: a guest post

Delighted to give the floor today to the BAFTA-award winning composer Jocelyn Pook, who tells us about Hysteria: A Song Cycle for Singer and Psychiatrist which premieres this Saturday 14 July at 7.30pm at Hoxton Hall (tickets here). Fasten your seatbelt: this is strong stuff.

Jocelyn Pook
Photo: Zoran S Pejic

I am fascinated by the power of the mind, the power of thought and the power of emotion to trigger a chemical reaction in the body. It is a point where the unconscious takes over and the body reacts of its own volition with a physical symptom.

So when the Wellcome Trust asked 10 artists including me to respond to the subject of Hysteria and psychosomatic disorders, it sparked 2 years of research resulting in the premiere this Saturday of my new work Hysteria:  A Song Cycle for Singer and Psychiatrist. Our brief from the Wellcome Trust was to pair up with a medical professional and I was lucky to work with the French psychiatrist Dr Stephanie Courtade. Stephanie has an unusually open, compassionate, humorous and perhaps at times unorthodox approach. As a result it was a fascinating process for me, resulting in the work occasionally veering off into quite unexpected directions.

I am constantly surprised by how many people around me have been afflicted by these conversion disorders.  Hysteria is an irksome and outdated term previously a preserve of female disorders in the 19th century, yet now it is no longer considered a medical condition. Many of these ailments, if not necessarily critical, can however be debilitating. I wanted to find out whether hair turning white overnight was apocryphal or based on evidence.  

I came across cases of outbreaks of severe eczema during an unhappy love affair, something which had never affected that person before or subsequently. A friend’s grandfather’s hair fell out overnight during a a breakdown as a young man, which in those days was never talked about and became a family secret. A woman suffered from panic attacks to the point that she lost the ability to swallow liquid. There was a violinist I had known since youth orchestra, who became plagued by a  psychosomatic pain in her solar plexis whenever she performed in an orchestra and resulted in her changing career entirely. Every time she picked up the violin, the pain returned though it never does when she sings. And I did discover a case of a 12-year old girl whose hair turned white overnight when her mother died. At times, I have feel like a fly on a wall at a therapist’s studio.
The body speaks in so many different ways. As Stephanie says, “the body is like the stage for the drama and theatre play of the mind.” These examples are from men too, though the balance in this work is weighted unconsciously to more female voices.   

Hysteria’s long gestation was preceded by two earlier works linked to mental illness, making latest installment Part 3 of a Trilogy. It started with Hearing Voices inspired by protest literature from patients incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals and in particular my great aunt’s notes during more than 25 years lost in an “asylum” as they were then known. Part 2 was Anxiety Fanfare, a choral work which also explores the sometimes funny side of anxiety and the use of humour as a kind of survival mechanism. 

Like Hearing VoicesHysteria will also be a multi-media project. So many of my works start with the primary sources - the witnesses from the front line.  It’s their testimonies, which form the kernel of all three works. Often the cadence and rhythm of a patient’s own recorded voice morphs into the voice of vocalist Melanie Pappenheim. The performance is not a load of crazy grimacing and shrieking, but deals with the more private moments of pain. I wanted this idea to be reflected in the music and performance, in a way that feels true to our experiences and observations. It was important for me to show people in a state where they aren’t completely broken.  

I have also incorporated many of Dr Stephanie Courtade’s insights about the medical profession, including her own experiences as a patient on the couch with a particularly unsympathetic psychiatrist. The common use now within the medical of profession of referring to patients as “service users”, seems particularly impersonal even if liberating them from illness. 

I feel immensely privileged that so many people have shared such intimate experiences with me – feel a responsibility to them. I still have so much material that I would still like to use, so I don’t know whether this is the finished piece.   

The UK film premiere of The Wife for which Jocelyn Pook wrote the filmscore, will be premiered at Somerset House on 9 August before going on general release on 28 September. Memorial, based on the poem by Alice Oswald with music by Jocelyn Pook comes to Barbican Theatre 27-30 September.